Pakistan’s Supreme Court today agreed to review the case of a Christian mother sentenced to death on a blasphemy charge, temporarily suspending her execution.
Aasiya Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi, is the first woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan. The three-judge bench of the Supreme Court at the Lahore Registry admitted for hearing her petition challenging the sentence.
Attorney Saif-ul-Malook told Morning Star News that he had a strong case for demanding Noreen’s acquittal.
“Asia Bibi has claimed that she had not made any blasphemous remarks, and that rather her fellow villagers had leveled the allegation against her based on a personal feud,” said Malook. “The FIR [First Information Report] against my client was registered five days after the alleged incident had taken place. The mala fide intent is quite visible as the prolonged delay in lodging the case implies that the complainants had plenty of time to cook up the allegations against Asia Bibi.”
Malook said that in a previous blasphemy case, Ayub Masih v. State in 2002, judges had thrown out the death sentence against Masih due to a three-hour delay in the registration of the FIR. Attorney Naeem Shakir made the same contention before the Lahore High Court in October last year – that the main complainant, local Muslim cleric Mohammad Salaam, had not heard Noreen blaspheme, and that his original FIR had been filed five days after the women’s quarrel.
Shakir had argued in his appeal that during the trial the only reason given for this delay was “deliberation and consultation,” and said that cleric Salaam had acknowledged this in court.
Salaam, the main accuser, had told the high court that the FIR got delayed because he had investigated the charges himself first, Malook said. Salaam has said on record that his religious obligation to defend the dignity of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was the basis for his decision to be a court witness. He said that he had only heard Noreen allegedly confess to blasphemy when she had been brought before a Panchayat (local village council) several days after the quarrel.
Noreen’s other main accuser, the owner of the field where she worked, Muhammad Imran, was not present at the time of the quarrel either; he was away from the village at the time.
Arrested in June 2009 after Muslim co-workers in a berry field 60 miles west of Lahore beat her when she refused to convert to Islam following a quarrel, her death sentence was announced in November 2010. The Lahore High Court on Oct. 16, 2014 upheld the death sentence for the mother of two children and stepmother to three others.
Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death.
The Supreme Court judges today said they would fix a date in due course to review the substance of the appeal.
Chaudhry Ghulam Mustafa, lawyer for the complainant against Noreen, opposed the petition on grounds that it had been filed too late. But Justice Saqib Nisar, head of the three-judge bench, said the court would hear the case.
Malook, who is representing Noreen before the high court, said her chances for acquittal were good.
“I believe that Asia Bibi’s case was not handled properly, but even now she has a good chance of being freed from her ordeal on the basis of inadmissible evidence,” Malook said. “We have a good case, and I’m sure the Supreme Court will consider the shoddy trial Asia Bibi has been subjected to and deliver justice to her.”
He said the trial and prior appeal judges had not taken into account the Islamic principle of Tazkiya al Shahood, which requires accusers to meet strict standards of Islamic piety. The lawyer referred to a 1992 decision by the Supreme Court, which ruled that “[what] the expression Tazkiya al Shahood signifies and connotes is to require elaborate enquiry into the piety, uprightness and integrity of the witness from the men of the same virtues.”
“The high court kept silent over the fact that the trial judge had not applied the Tazkia al Shahood test then to determine whether the accuser fulfilled the Islamic criteria for leveling such allegation,” Malook said.
The two-member High Court bench comprising Justice Muhammad Anwaarul Haq and Syed Shahbaz Ali Rizvi, however, said in their verdict in November 2014 that they had upheld Noreen’s death sentence because defense lawyers were unable to competently cross-examine prosecution witnesses.
Brushing aside the 1992 Supreme Court guidance on Tazkiya al Shahood, the appeals judges observed that the accused in that case had been acquitted on the merits of the evidence even without the benefit of the stricter standards, presumably leaving open the question of whether those standards ought to be employed generally.
In Noreen’s case, however, the High Court suggested that the trial court could have made that determination if it had been equipped with guidelines for applying the Islamic legal test – throwing the ball in the government’s court to make the necessary changes in the laws.
“In the absence of any corresponding amendment in procedural law for testing credibility of a witness at such a higher standard, the principle of Tazkiyah al Shahood cannot be applied in other cases,” the ruling said. It expressed the “utmost necessity for necessary corresponding amendments in procedural law for the proof of an offence where the only sentence provided is death.”
The judges ordered that the Ministry of Law, Justice and Human Rights should forward the court’s observation to the federal government. Government movement in that regard is unknown.
The Federal Shariat Court, which determines whether Pakistan’s laws comply with the principles of Islam, had declared in 1990 that insulting Muhammad qualifies as Hadd – a category of crimes and punishments prescribed in the Quran and the tradition of the Muhammad. Accordingly, the only acceptable penalty is death, the Shariat Court had ruled.
Regarding media reports asserting Noreen was suffering severe health problems, Malook said that his client was generally well.
“Such rumors are usually spread by so-called rights outfits to gather foreign funds in Asia Bibi’s name,” he said. “My client is in good health; seasonal flu or diarrhea does not count as severe sickness.”
Noreen, 50, was accused of making derogatory comments about Muhammad after a Muslim woman told her she as a Christian had defiled a bowl of water she had touched in Nankana Sahib district in 2009. The Muslim woman and her sister were the only two witnesses in the case, but the defense failed to convince the judges that their evidence lacked credibility.
Following her lawyers’ unsuccessful appeal in Lahore’s High Court in October 2014, the current appeal is now the last chance of a ruling that her conviction was wrong in the absence of credible evidence.
Her husband, Ashiq Masih, told International Christian Concern (ICC) that the decision to review her appeal was a “big relief.”
“The whole family is thankful to God for listening to our prayers,” Masih told ICC. “We hope justice will be done, and Asia will finally be proved innocent.”
Masih recently visited the Vatican with two daughters to meet the Pope regarding his wife’s case.
Christian rights activist Napolean Qayyum of The Voice Society told Morning Star News that the Supreme Court’s decision to accept the case for hearing was good news for Pakistani Christians.
“Asia’s case will surely have a positive effect on similar cases where people have been wrongly accused of blasphemy to settle personal scores and convicted by trial courts on the basis of fear,” he said, adding that the entire Christian community would be praying for wisdom for the judges when they decide her case.
Noreen’s case focused international attention on how Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have become a weapon against religious minorities. Her death sentence led to international protests, and the possibility of overturning it provoked outrage within Pakistan. Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer was slain by his bodyguard on Jan. 4, 2011 because of his support for Bibi and his criticism of the blasphemy law; the bodyguard believed Taseer, a Muslim, had blasphemed by criticizing the law.
Meeting with Noreen after her sentencing in 2010, Taseer had told her he believed the charges against her were fabricated and promised to recommend a presidential pardon. He called Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes “a black law” and called for their repeal.
Former Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, the first Christian, cabinet-level minister, was shot and killed on March 2, 2011 for calling for reforms to blasphemy laws following Bibi’s trial.
Death sentences have not been carried out in blasphemy cases, but that is in part because such allegations have frequently led to deadly vigilante attacks on the accused or their lawyers.
Pakistan is nearly 96 percent Muslim, according to Operation World, and religiously charged court cases commonly involve clamoring crowds of Muslims and other pressures coming to bear on lawyers and judges. Christians make up 2.45 percent of the population.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has stated that Christians and Ahmadis, a minority sect within Islam, are vulnerable to Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law, according to The New York Times. More than 20 men have been sentenced to death under the blasphemy law, most of them Christians, though none have been executed, human rights groups say.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been routinely misused to settle personal scores with false accusations. Police have found most blasphemy accusations to be false during investigation, but accusers can make innocent victims suffer months in jail with quick and easy registration of such cases.
Of 5,000 cases registered between 1984 and 2004, only 964 people were charged with blasphemy, according to the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. A recent study by the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) found that from 1953 to July 2012, there were 434 people blasphemy “offenders” in Pakistan, including 258 Muslims, 114 Christians, 57 Ahmadis and four Hindus.
Those acquitted of blasphemy charges also face threats from homicidal vigilantes. Of 52 people extra-judicially murdered after being charged with blasphemy in Pakistan, 25 were Muslims, 15 were Christians, five were Ahmadis, one was Buddhist and one was Hindu, according to the CRSS report.
Most blasphemy case acquittals take place at the appellate level, after courts have denied bail so often that the accused spend years in jail, as lower courts tend to decide based on fear of violence by Islamist groups rather than on merit.
Section 295-B of Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes makes willful desecration of the Koran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.
Blasphemy charges against Rimsha Masih, a girl whose mental age was determined to be less than 14 years old, were dismissed on Nov. 20, 2012 after a judge ruled that they were baseless (see Morning Star News, Nov. 20, 2012). She has since been relocated to Canada.
Courtesy: Morning Star News
Photo courtesy: Thinkstock
Publication date: July 23, 2015