British MP calls for Aasia Bibi’s release & repeal of blasphemy laws

January 8, 2014 by  
Filed under newsletter-lead


Aasia Bibi has been detained since June 2009

Aasia Bibi has been detained since June 2009

Pakistan, December 20, 2013: This is the fifth Christmas that Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother condemned to death on a trumped-up blasphemy charge, will spend behind bars in Pakistan.

Separated from her family since her arrest in June 2009, she cannot expect her long-awaited appeal to take place before 2015, such is thebacklog of cases. Although it is widely recognised that Aasia, a simple and uneducated woman, did not blaspheme against Muhammad, she remains languishing on death row. Her husband and children have been forced into hiding, as those accused of blasphemy and their families are extremely vulnerable to attack by Islamic extremists in Pakistan. Barnabas Fund is helping to meet their practical needs.

The Pakistani government has failed to intervene, fearful of a vitriolic backlash by radical elements within the country that it has been unable to control.

Political leaders who have tried to help Aasia have paid the highest price. First the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, a Muslim, was murdered by one of his own bodyguards in January 2011, and then Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was gunned down two months later.

Aasia has been abandoned, her plight mostly forgotten or ignored.

But earlier this month, her case was championed in the British House of Commons by Conservative MP for Gillingham and Rainham, Rehman Chishti, during a wider debate about the persecution of Christians. He is from a Muslim background; his father was an imam.

In an uncompromising appeal, Mr Chishti said:

She is 46 and has five children and has been languishing in prison for four years. She was condemned to death by a lower court, not knowing whether her appeal would come through. Is that a civilised world? Is that right and proper if it happened to one of us or someone we loved? Absolutely not. The Government of Pakistan under a new President and Prime Minister have a moral obligation to do the right thing and ensure that Aasia Bibi is released and pardoned.

BAD LAW

Mr Chisthti, who was born in Pakistan, focused his speech on the country’s “blasphemy laws”, which lie behind Aasia’s suffering as well as that of countless other innocents before her and since.

He described it as “a bad law” and called for it to be repealed. Mr Chisthti, who formerly served as an adviser to Benazir Bhutto, a former Pakistani Prime Minister who was assassinated because she was pushing for reform, referred specifically to amendments made by General Zia during the 1980s.

Zia added the controversial sections 295-B and 295-C in 1982 and 1986 respectively; the former made desecration of the Quran punishable by mandatory life imprisonment, while under the latter, “defiling the name of Muhammad” carried the death penalty or life imprisonment. The option of life imprisonment for offences committed under 295-C was removed in 1991 following a ruling made by the Federal Shariat Court, which determines whether laws comply with Islamic teaching. Their decision made the death penalty mandatory.

Mr Chishti said Zia’s amendments were “totally unacceptable” and highlighted one of the major problems with the blasphemy laws: the way they are abused to settle personal disputes.

This is what happened to Aasia Bibi. What was her real “crime”? She fetched water for herself and her fellow field-labourers to drink, which the Muslim women refused because Aasia is a Christian and was therefore considered unclean. An argument ensued, and Aasia was later accused of blasphemy by a local cleric who was not present during the quarrel and heard about the matter afterwards from the other women.

Sadly, Aasia’s is not an isolated case. Christians and other non-Muslims in Pakistan are particularly vulnerable to malicious, false accusation. There is no penalty for bringing a false complaint, and the lower courts tend to believe the word of a Muslim over the word of a non-Muslim, in line with the teachings of sharia.

Although no-one has yet been executed for blasphemy, 52 people have been extra-judicially murdered for being implicated in blasphemy cases, despite some of them being declared innocent. Entire Christian communities have been attacked following an accusation against one of its members. Many of those charged spend months or years in custody while their cases are considered. Once released, they cannot return to their former lives and often have to go into hiding or else leave the country altogether, such is the threat to their security.

CALL FOR CHANGE

While making a strong call for the blasphemy laws to be repealed, Mr Chishti acknowledged the great difficulty for the Pakistani government in doing this, given what has happened to those such as Benazir Bhutto, Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, who have bravely stood for reform.

He said that hearts and minds need to be changed, and that the British government should use the aid it gives as leverage to achieve this.

Accepting that it may take time for the blasphemy laws to be repealed, Mr Chishti presented a number of very workable measures that the Pakistani government could introduce that would go some way at least to minimise abuses.

Firstly, he said that the laws should not be dealt with by the lower courts in Pakistan, “because they are more susceptible to corruption and intimidation by religious groups”. Secondly, he called for specialised prosecutors to deal with blasphemy cases, and thirdly, for specifically-trained judges to try them.

Mr Chishti recounted a conversation he had had with 12 Pakistani high court judges who insisted, “No blasphemy law is abused in Pakistan.” He said:

If that is the mentality of judges at the high court in Pakistan, what hope does anybody have of justice in that country?

The MP also called for a body within the Interior Ministry to authorise prosecutions, again to remove the problem of intimidation at local level. And finally, he urged that those who seek asylum in another country because of faith-related persecution be given priority.

MIRACLE NEEDED

Sadly, the day after Mr Chisti’s inspired speech in the House of Commons, the Federal Shariat Court in Pakistan issued a ruling that sent a very strong message that reform of the country’s blasphemy laws is not on the agenda.

It underlined that any punishment other than death for blasphemy was unlawful, as it had previously stated in 1990 regarding section 295-C, which refers to “defiling the name of Muhammad”. The matter was raised again on 4 December by a lawyer, Hashmat Habib, who argued that the 1990 decision had not been implemented.

Although the alternative punishment of life imprisonment was removed from section 295-C, nobody has been executed for blasphemy. Mr Habib said that the Federal Shariat Court should issue orders to rectify this as well as initiate proceedings against those who have failed to implement the earlier ruling.

The law was changed in 1991 under current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s first government. He was elected to the office for the third time in May; during his election campaign, he reaffirmed his support for the blasphemy laws and spoke against making any changes to them.

It seems hopeless, but the recent tributes to Nelson Mandela have reminded us that radical and progressive change can happen; resistant hearts and minds can change; societies can be transformed.

The Christians of Pakistan need a miracle, so let us pray for one as we celebrate over the coming week the miraculous birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

And let us not forget our dear sister Aasia and her family this Christmas. Pray that they will be comforted by the “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6b).

– dr patrick sookhdeo

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