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Web around Pakistan’s blasphemy laws

HONG KONG (SE): A petition sponsored by the American Centre for Law and Justice calling for the release of Asia Bibi (Asia Noreen), a Catholic mother of five who has been sitting on Pakistan’s death row since 2010 on charges under the nation’s controversial blasphemy law, has to date collected 540,000 signatures.

However, Asia’s situation is far from straightforward. It is not simply a religious matter and she has become entangled in a complex web of fundamentalist groups, as well as politico-religious organisations pushing their political agendas under the guise of the defence of Islam.

An appeal scheduled for October 15 in the Supreme Court in Islamabad was abandoned when one judge from the three-bench court, Iqbal Hameed-ur-Rehman, recused himself from the case, claiming conflict of interest.

He cited his involvement in sentencing Mumtaz Qadri, who was found guilty of the murder of the Muslim governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer, claiming to be defending Islam, because the governor had spoken critical words about the blasphemy law.

With the public baying for his blood, it was reported that 3,000 police had been deployed around the Supreme Court in Islamabad to ensure Iqbal’s safety at the Asia appeal.

This was history repeating itself, as when he turned down Mumtaz’ appeal, he had to be secreted away from the court under police escort.

Asia was condemned to death by a judge in a provincial court in Sheikhupura under a climate of cooperation with uncontrolled corruption and bribery.

However, the higher judiciary operates within in a climate of threat, which leaves the judges apprehensive and in fear of their own lives and those of their families.

But long time missionary to Pakistan, Father Robert McCulloch, says that according to the legitimate edicts of Islam, Asia should never have been sentenced to death in the first place.

He cites a fatwa (religious edict) issued by more than 450 reputed religious scholars from various schools of thought that states that a non-Muslim cannot be killed unless they are habitual offenders.

Hundreds of leading ulema (body of Muslim scholars) from south Asia have also declared that a one-off non-Muslim offender should receive a full pardon.

Even the founder of the sect that Mumtaz belonged to has endorsed the concept of pardon in such circumstances on the basis that non-Muslims should not die for a single offence.

In addition, Mahmood Hassan Deobandi, the founder of a group that endorses the death penalty for blasphemy, is also a signatory to the fatwa excusing non-Muslims.

This should have seen Asia walking free, as she has apologised many times and there is no record of even a second offence. But that is not the climate in which her case is unfolding.

However, Father McCulloch says that the bottom line question is who protects the fundamentalist and politico-religious groups, which support what he calls an anti-Pakistan agenda and hold strongly to an Islamic State-Taliban thesis.

He explains that although the military operates a soft martial law across the country, high ranking echelons of the armed forces actively support and protect the fundamentalist-politico-religious groups.

“The military acts directly against groups which attack the army, its personnel or families,” the Columban missionary says, citing the massacre at the army school in Peshawar in 2014. 

“But it readily endures that it is unable, in spite of huge financial outlay and personnel, to successfully address the wider issue of terrorist supporter groups in Pakistan because of its own association with them,” he added. 

But what has brought the matter to a head is that these groups have been operating in Kashmir and India, which is causing international tension.

A report written by Cyril Almeida in the Karachi daily, Dawn, on October 7, raised sufficient denial and prompted enough clarifications from the Foreign Affairs Office and the prime minister for Father McCulloch to say that it is probably on the money.

“The current civilian government, having itself been an explicit backer of these fundamentalist religious groups which support internal and external terrorism, now realises that the intrusion of the military, through its support of such groups, is a threat to the integrity of the civilian government,” Almeida says.

Almeida claims that at an undisclosed meeting held at the office of the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, on October 3, the civilian government informed the military leadership of the growing international isolation of Pakistan and sought an initial consensus on putting an end to military intelligence interfering with law enforcement against militant groups.

Nawaz also asked for a conclusion to the Pathankot investigation (terrorist attack on an Indian Air Force station in January this year) and a restart to the stalled Mumbai attacks-related trials being held in a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court.

Almeida recounts that a report from the foreign secretary spoke of the diplomatic isolation that Pakistan is being subjected to and that the talking points of the government are being met with indifference in international capitals.

He pointed out that the United States of America wants action taken against the Haqqani (Afghan guerilla insurgents), India wants the Pathankot issue settled and even China has indicated it wants a change of course.

However, the police chief from the Punjab countered by saying that whenever action is taken by civilian authorities, security works behind the scenes to free those who have been arrested.

Almeida then recounts an unprecedented consensus on how to move forward.

But the Lal Masjid Mosque in Islamabad remains an outstanding issue, as its terrorist harbouring practice has continued to thrive under both military and civilian governments.

It was the mosque that organised the crowd baying for Asia’s death outside the court on October 15 and promised kangaroo justice if the authorities do not act.

However, no one has ever been hanged by the state for blasphemy and the government is not keen to make a controversial internationally well-known figure like Asia the first.

But the threats against the judiciary make it reluctant to defend her and the government has willing acquiesced to withholding medical treatment from her under pressure from religious zealots.

The quandary of the judiciary is that if Asia is acquitted, their lives will be in danger and, if they convict her, they will run contrary to the best Islamic minds in the country and further blacken Pakistan’s name on the world scene.

The hope of the government is that it will not have to make any decision on her fate, which leaves the long suffering woman between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Father McCulloch believes that one of the fundamental problems operating in this case is that the legal jurisprudence on blasphemy has never been clearly established, since then-president, Zia-ul Haq, began adding to the laws in the early 1980s.

“In its effort to appease religious fundamentalists and proscribed militant organisations, and at the same time avoid appearing unjust in the commune of nations, the government of Pakistan wants Asia to die in jail rather than be blamed for hanging her itself,” Father McCulloch concludes.

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