The family of Pakistani farmhand Aasia Bibi, sentenced to death for blasphemy

This article is a preview from the Summer 2018 edition of New Humanist

On 25 November 2017, Pakistani security forces cracked down after two weeks of violent protest by religious demonstrators. Two people were killed and 250 injured. People were protesting over a proposed change in election laws. Islamist groups claimed that this change would amount to blasphemy, as it would weaken the oath that candidates for public office must take, confirming that Muhammad is the final prophet. The demonstrators called for the resignation of the law minister – mild enough by the standards of Pakistan where blasphemy is punishable by death.

While no one has yet been “lawfully” killed for blasphemy, many have been killed by mob violence, as in the case of Mashal Khan (New Humanist, Summer 2017). According to an Al-Jazeera tally, approximately 69 people have been killed by vigilantes since 1990. Military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq established the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) in 1980 to decide “whether or not any law or provision of law is repugnant to the injunctions of Islam”. Blasphemy law was inherited from the British but for many years lay more or less dormant – only 14 people had been accused of blasphemy until ul-Haq seized control. Between his coming to power in 1978 and 2014, 1,300 people were accused. In 1986, ul-Haq upped the maximum penalty from 10 years’ imprisonment to death.

The case of Aasia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman given a death sentence for blasphemy in 2010, has become a cause célèbre. She received worldwide coverage and support not only in her own right but because her case tragically pulled in its wake the murder of two senior politicians who spoke on her behalf. Shahbaz Bhatti, minister for minorities and the only Christian in the Pakistani cabinet, said the case against Aasia was baseless and urged reform of blasphemy laws. He was killed in 2011; the murder was claimed by the Taliban but his killers have not been found. Two months earlier, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who visited Aasia several times in prison, called for her release. He paid with his life.

Remarkably, there are still a handful of brave campaigners prepared to raise their heads above the parapet, indicating that a vibrant but embattled secular tradition survives. Sherry Rehman MP faced death threats for introducing a bill in 2010 to abolish the death sentence for blasphemy. And until her recent death in February 2018 (from natural causes), the human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir steered a suicidal course defending those accused of blasphemy and backing innumerable progressive causes guaranteed to enrage conservatives. As Moni Mohsin wrote in the Guardian after Jahangir’s death “Who will have our backs now?”

Who indeed? Well, Saif ul-Malook, Aasia’s lawyer, is treading a similar path. He is currently preparing Aasia’s appeal case, which was due to be heard in the Supreme Court in December but has still not been listed for a hearing. I first came across ul-Malook when he took on the knotty case of a young woman, Walaiha Irfat, who had been falsely accused of blasphemy and was being supported by her then fiancé, Muhammad Aman Ullah. In 2014, I was approached by a Pakistani friend who hoped that the group to which I belong, Southall Black Sisters, could support her. For a West London group, Pakistan was a little outside our geographical remit, but on hearing the story, I gradually got sucked into it in a personal capacity and entered by proxy the Kafkaesque world of bureaucracy and endless corruption that is Pakistani justice.

A blasphemy law has no place in a modern democracy – and it was abolished in the UK only in 2008 – but in an “Islamic democracy” like Pakistan, it is a valuable blanket for smothering dissent. When I asked ul-Malook if the law should be abolished, not surprisingly, he refused to be drawn, saying only that no government would dare stand up to religious forces. He added: “It is not the law but its application that is abhorrent and unjust.” There have been calls for its repeal, but given the strength of the religious lobby the best that can be hoped for are curbs on its misuse. Ul-Malook explains how the current situation arose. “[Zia-ul-Haq] strengthened his hand by befriending the religious leaders, made them ministers, gave them cars, built them bungalows, got them involved in government. Before that the religious leaders were quite weak, now they are stakeholders in government and in corruption.”

In August 2017, a high court judge recommended that the punishment for false accusations of blasphemy should also be a death sentence – a judgment of which no more has been heard. This may have made the accusers of both Walaiha and Aasia more wary of using accusations of blasphemy to settle personal scores.

Walaiha was only 22 years old, with a history of abuse and abandonment, and suffering from serious mental health problems, when she was imprisoned in 2012 on a false charge of blasphemy. She was accused by a friend, with whom she had fallen out, of sleeping on pages torn from the Qu’ran. The friend had connections in the local police station, which certainly helped – but as in the case of Aasia and others, an allegation of blasphemy without supporting evidence is enough to have someone thrown into jail. Aasia, a farmhand, had got into an argument with fellow workers, all Muslims, for drinking water out of the cup that was reserved for Muslims. This tradition of purity and untouchability is a hangover of the Hindu caste system in which a lower-caste person or anyone outside the religion is deemed to be unclean. According to Aasia, the co-worker who reported her to the village cleric was in dispute with her over property.

Both Aasia and Walaiha were kept in solitary confinement, apparently for their own safety. For Walaiha’s fragile state of mind, the impact was disastrous. The prison governor had propositioned Walaiha for sexual favours. When she refused, he made life even more difficult for her by, for example, preventing Aman from visiting her as they were not yet married. Letters and phone calls were only possible by bribing one of the prison guards.

Walaiha’s case languished in the lower courts. Hearings were postponed endlessly: five judges resigned or refused to sit. At every hearing, the court was packed out by religious extremists from groups such as Khatam-e-Nabuwat and Sipa Sahaba. “It’s so frightening, 40 to 50 maulvis (Muslim scholars) with terrorist looks turn up at court and stare at you and threaten you,” says ul-Malook. Their very presence intimidates the judges. These inconclusive hearings incur extra legal costs. Even where evidence is weak or where there are contradictions in the testimony, the judges are unable to acquit because they fear for their lives. Ul-Malook believes that “the lower district courts are very prejudiced against blasphemy victims. The judges dictate to a stenographer what part of the cross-examination of witnesses by the defence lawyers should be recorded. They favour the prosecution.”

In Aasia’s case, the police superintendent told the judge that the dispute was over drinking water and not blasphemy, but the judge did not record that. The witnesses in both Walaiha’s and Aasia’s cases contradicted their own and other people’s testimonies. Al-Jazeera published transcripts of Aasia’s trial and pointed out numerous inconsistencies. Despite that, the judgments in the lower court and the High Court which sentenced Aasia to death found the witness statements to be coherent.

Aman was threatened and had to go into hiding. He escaped a beating from the religious extremists at one hearing by pretending to be a servant of Walaiha’s family. Aasia’s family are in hiding because shortly after the incident, a mob came to her house and beat her and members of her family. When Aman was attempting to garner international support for Walaiha’s case, he went to meet Aasia’s husband, Ashiq Masih, to see if there were any lessons he could learn. He found the family, including five children, one of whom is severely disabled, living in one room at the mercy of a convent where they were lucky to get one meal a day. Ul-Malook reckons that donations of around Rs100 crore (approx. £750,000 at current exchange rates) had been raised for Aasia, including a car to transport her family to visit her in jail. All of this vanished into thin air, such is the endemic corruption in Pakistan.

Whilst we were nowhere near as successful in fundraising for Walaiha’s case, Aman could rest assured that he had received every penny. (We used the GoFundMe site where the amount raised is publicly visible.) Even so, we were not able to raise all the legal fees that were owed to ul-Malook, because some of the money was used to enable Walaiha and Aman to flee the country. Their story ended well – sort of. Although the blasphemy case against Walaiha is still pending in the lower courts, her application for bail was finally heard in the Supreme Court in October 2015. She was represented by the late Jahangir, who argued that it was illegal to keep a woman behind bars for longer than six months when she had not been convicted. As Walaiha had already spent three and a half years in prison, the judge released her. Walaiha is now living abroad but she has been so psychologically damaged that her relationship with Aman ended.

Although ul-Malook has been flexible, lawyers like him can command high fees for blasphemy cases because they are thin on the ground and the cost of personal security services is high. On the other hand, lawyers for complainants often provide services for free, out of religious zeal, as happened with both Walaiha and Aasia. Many of the victims of the blasphemy law are extremely poor, so ul-Malook relies on international NGOs and other organisations to pay his fees. For his protection, he has been given three guards 24/7 whose salaries of approximately £1,500 per month are paid by the government, but he has to meet their accommodation and food costs.

As Taseer, the former Punjab governor, was killed by his own security guard, I ask ul-Malook if he feels safe. “I don’t feel I can totally trust my guards but I cannot afford my own. My security lies in people like you, in media interest and coverage – there is a pressure on government that if anything happens to me they will be in trouble.”

His first case in these shark-filled waters was agreeing to prosecute Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who killed Taseer. “At that time nobody in the country was prepared to take on this case,” he says. “But now, for me, normal liberty of life has come to an end”. There is no crusading zeal in his answers, simply personal obligations. He mentions the names of a few high-ranking lawyers and judges, including the Chief Justice at that time, and Taseer’s widow who persuaded him to take the case on.

Perhaps he is an atheist? “I am not a practising Muslim but I am a believer. I don’t pray five times a day, for example, but I live a life of honesty and greater moral virtue than most religious people. I care about my fellow human beings. If religion doesn’t stop people telling lies or committing fraud or corruption then what good is it?” What he does get exercised about is that most people in his friends’ circle do not “appreciate the fact that I’m doing this work. None of them encouraged me, they said that I had done wrong by my family, that I would alienate my children. Nobody said, ‘Well done, we need people like you.’ If anybody encouraged me it was the American senators who came to my house, invited me to America and treated me with so much respect. They took me to the Justice Department, the State Department, the Congress, the Senate.”

Ul-Malook is cautiously hopeful that Aasia, whose death sentence was suspended in 2015 to allow the appeal process to be completed, will have her day soon in court and will be successful. Last year when it was listed at the Supreme Court, one of the three judges said he didn’t want to sit on this case. The case was adjourned. Why is ul-Malook hopeful that she will get justice at a higher court if she was denied it by the lower courts? He argues that “the Supreme Court judges are sitting in such a place where there is less fear”, citing their superior salaries and security arrangements. It is also the case that lower court judges may be more sympathetic to the religious lobby. Ul-Malook recounts the story of the Sessions judge who sentenced Aasia to death: he has preserved the pen which he used to sign off her judgment, as a source of pride.

Things have come full circle. The unrest in November was orchestrated by Hussain Rizvi, leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a group formed in support of Mumtaz Qadri, who killed Taseer. It is highly unlikely the blasphemy law will be abolished, so all we can hope for is the good implementation of a bad law. Even that looks vanishingly unlikely in Aasia’s case: these demonstrations may have condemned her to languish in prison longer.