Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pakistan: Lahore High Court’s upholding of the death sentence for Aasia Bibi is a dark stain - Statements and Commentary

A Pakistani court’s decision to uphold the death sentence against a Christian woman convicted on blasphemy charges is a grave injustice, Amnesty International said.
The Lahore High Court today rejected the appeal against the death sentence imposed on Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death in 2010 for allegedly making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad during an argument with a Muslim woman.
Photo_asia

See: Human rights in Pakistan - the continued persecution of Asia Bibi
“This is a grave injustice. Asia Bibi should never have been convicted in the first place – still less sentenced to death – and the fact that she could pay with her life for an argument is sickening,” said David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia Pacific Director.

“There were serious concerns about the fairness of Asia Bibi’s trial, and her mental and physical health has reportedly deteriorated badly during the years she has spent in almost total isolation on death row. She should be released immediately and the conviction should be quashed.” Asia Bibi’s lawyer said after today’s verdict that he will file an appeal to the Supreme Court.

On 4 January 2011, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was killed by one of his security guards after campaigning for Asia Bibi and criticizing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, an outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws, was killed by the Pakistani Taliban on 2 March 2011.

“The laws are often used to settle personal vendettas – both against members of minority religious groups and Muslims – while individuals facing charges are frequently targeted in mob violence. Those who speak out against the laws face terrible reprisals. However, the blasphemy laws violate international law and must be repealed or reformed immediately to meet international standards,” said David Griffiths.
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Editorial: Presumed Guilt
Asia Bibi’s appeal to the Lahore High Court was denied on Thursday, and the death penalty accorded to her still stands despite her lawyers citing lack of evidence to convict her of blasphemy. An appeal to the Supreme Court is the next step her lawyers will take, and might lead to charges being dropped as for Ayub Masih in 2002. But the fact remains that Asia Bibi has been in jail since 2010, and it may take years for the case to be cleared.

Courts in Pakistan must start recognising the fallibility of sworn testimonies. Asia Bibi was convicted on the basis of the testimony of a cleric and other women in the village, even though charges should also be leveled against her accusers for first marginalizing her and then using courts to settle their personal scores against a mother of five. The lack of proper investigative techniques means that evidence is often doctored, and witnesses coerced for personal or ideological reasons in order to spin the case one way or another.

The flaws in the blasphemy law, the repercussions they have against anyone who has been accused of blasphemy and the amount of cases that have little or no evidence proving that blasphemy was committed, mean that a revision of the laws is due. The law is based on the principal of innocent until proven guilty, yet in the case of blasphemy charges, the guilt of those that have been charged is accepted as fact, long before the case even goes to court, with the public often stepping in to execute their own brand of vigilante justice. The nation lost two giants- Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti- for vocalising the injustice accorded to Asia Bibi. Thus the case is both high pressure and high profile. Historically, when this is the case, politics and religiosity contaminate the judicial process. The LHC upholding the death penalty for Asia Bibi is an instance of that contamination, and a grave disrespect to those who have already given up their lives for the path of justice and equal humanity.
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Editorial: Travesty of justice
The upholding of the death sentence of Aasia Bibi by the Lahore High Court (LHC) is yet another dark chapter in the judicial history of Pakistan. The 50-year-old Christian woman, a brick-kiln labourer by profession, who was sentenced to death by a district and sessions court for allegedly having blasphemed against the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), had appealed that decision in the LHC. Now that her appeal has been rejected, she has 30 days to take this case to the Supreme Court but the pattern of such cases shows that it will take years for her to get justice, if she gets any. The problem remains that she has been imprisoned for over four years now, and that too based on false accusations as the accusers who lodged the complaint against her used the blasphemy law to settle a personal feud. Add to this the lack of prosecution witnesses in this case and all the facts go in favour of her innocence, but none of it seems sufficient to free the poor woman.

The story does not end here as a series of violent events ensued from this case and continue to haunt us, with some high profile figures like Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti — the then Punjab governor and the federal minister of minorities respectively — having lost their lives for standing up for the victim and voicing against the abusive use of the blasphemy law. The fact that attempts to repeal it have been thwarted, with some paying for it with their lives or receiving life threats, logic demands alternate ways to provide justice. Is there any law that can save a person who has been falsely accused? 

And is there is any punishment for the one who falsely accuses someone? Or will the clouds of such travesties of justice permanently loom over our heads? One can find plenty of cases where witch-hunts, vigilante mobs, land grabs and assassinations have been carried out under the umbrella of this law. The Gojra, Badami Bagh, Gujranwala incidents, the recent killing of one blasphemy accused and wounding of another in Adiala Jail and many other similar events are blatantly scars on the face of our history and no one accused of blasphemy, rightly or wrongly, is safe. It is more than shameful for this increasingly intolerant and bigoted society that the perpetrators behind such heinous crimes are treated as heroes while the principles of justice stand paralysed. Parliament needs to take steps to save society from an incremental breakdown of justice because of the blasphemy law while providing safeguards for the falsely accused, whose number is growing, to our permanent shame and ignominy.
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The Lahore court’s decision to uphold Asia Bibi’s death penalty is far from just
Unless influential people oppose Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, there’s no hope for her or many others facing execution by Samira Shackle

In November 2010, Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, was sentenced to death in Pakistan. Her crime was allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad during an argument with some Muslim neighbours. The case caused an international outcry; politicians and international human rights organisations took it up; lawyers appealed. Today, the Lahore high court upheld the death sentence.

Bibi’s case shone a spotlight on Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws. The existence of blasphemy laws is not itself unusual. All over the world, different countries restrict what citizens can say about religion; Britain had a blasphemy law until 2008. What is exceptional in Pakistan is the extremity of the penalties, and the light burden of proof. Blasphemy carries a maximum penalty of death, yet the law sets out no standards for evidence, no requirement to prove intent, no punishment for false allegations and, indeed, no guidance on what actually constitutes blasphemy.

The accuser can refuse to repeat the offending statement in court, and judges can choose not to hear evidence in case it perpetuates the blasphemy and offends religious sensibilities. This means that in some cases, the accused can go through a whole trial without knowing what they are supposed to have done or said.

The law is open to massive abuse. As such, it is frequently used to settle personal vendettas and to persecute minorities. Bibi’s alleged blasphemous comments were supposedly made after co-workers refused to share water that she had carried; they said it was unclean because she was a Christian (this is a hangover from the caste system, as most of those who converted to Christianity in pre-partition India were members of the lower castes). She has always maintained her innocence, claiming that these neighbours simply wanted to punish her. The British citizen Mohammed Asghar, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, also faces the death sentence for blasphemy. Allegations were made against him in 2010 by a tenant with whom he was having a dispute. No concessions have been made for his mental health condition.

Despite these obvious flaws in the legislation and the way it is applied, reform is not coming. When Bibi’s case came to prominence in 2010, three politicians – Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti and Sherry Rehman – all from the Pakistan People’s Party, which was then in power, took up the case and called for reform. The consequences speak for themselves. Taseer was shot dead by his bodyguard in January 2011. In March the same year, Bhatti was killed by Taliban assassins. Rehman was forced into semi-hiding. The then prime minister shelved all reform, cowed into retreat by the potent mix of extremist threats and mob violence.

Blasphemy excites strong emotions among parts of Pakistan’s public like no other issue. Many people accused of blasphemy are killed by mobs before they even make it to trial. (According to the Islamabad-based Centre for Security Studies, at least 52 people have been killed over blasphemy offences since 1990). Taseer’s assassin was showered with rose petals when he arrived at the courthouse for his murder trial. Many took this as evidence of the way that extremist groups have infiltrated elements of Pakistani society, exploiting the public’s strong religious sensibility and pushing it further towards intolerance.

The power of extremist groups, and the acquiescence of politicians, has had a big impact on the direction of public discussion in Pakistan. The targeting of anyone who speaks out about blasphemy laws has had a chilling effect, and even outspoken liberal voices are reluctant to make the case for reform publicly. Several years ago, while living in Karachi, I wrote on the subject for one of Pakistan’s leading liberal English-language newspapers. The editors decided not to publish it because the subject was deemed too risky.

While this self-censorship is entirely understandable in a country where the authorities provide little protection, it gives extremist ideas the space to flourish and grow. Without people in the halls of power willing to stand up and call for change, there is little hope for Bibi, Asghar and the hundreds of other disenfranchised people sentenced to death under these excessive and nonsensical laws.

This article was amended on 18 October 2014. The author originally wrote that “the existence of blasphemy laws is not itself the problem” which some have pointed out suggests she supports blasphemy laws in general, which is not the case. This has now been reworded at her suggestion.
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Blasphemy laws in focus again by Amir Mir
ISLAMABAD: The upholding of death sentence awarded to a Christian woman Aasia Bibi on blasphemy charges way back in 2009 has brought the blasphemy laws back to the light again. General Ziaul Haq was the architect of Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), which was added in 1986, mandating capital punishment for “use of derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet”. Even the law minister at the time did not support the bill when it was introduced in the National Assembly of Pakistan on the ground that the Quran did not fix a penalty for this offence.

The law, which technically serves to protect all religions from blasphemy, is mostly invoked only by the majority against the minority. The growing consensus on a review of the controversial laws had prompted some members of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) to recommend last year death penalty to those also who make false accusations of blasphemy. But the proposal was killed during the CII meeting on September 19, 2013.

Aasia, a 49-year-old mother of five, insists that she was falsely accused of committing blasphemy after she refused to convert to Islam. Aasia’s sentence had provoked an international outcry, including pleas for her release by the Pope. However, Aasia Bibi’s case was thrown into cold storage after the then Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by a policeman [Mumtaz Qadri] in January 2011 in the federal capital for seeking clemency for the condemned woman. Taseer was declared a blasphemer by the clergy after he met with Aasia in jail and announced at a press conference that he would take her clemency appeal to President Zardari and personally request him to use his discretionary powers to grant her the presidential pardon.

After his assassination, over 500 clerics voiced support for the assassin and his act and urged a general boycott of Taseer’s funeral. His assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was sentenced to death by an Anti Terrorist Court in Islamabad on October 1, 2011. But quite strangely, district and sessions judge Pervez Ali Shah, who had handed down death sentence to Qadri, had to leave Pakistan along with his family after reports that extremist elements had fixed head money for him.

Like in many other blasphemy cases, the complainant in Aasia’s case was also a cleric — Qari Mohammad Salam — who was not present at the place of occurrence of the alleged crime. He was informed about the incident by two women Muslim co-workers of Aasia that the Christian woman had uttered blasphemous remarks five days ago during a clash.

Ever since the law was enacted, there are instances to prove that it has often been misused to settle personal scores. To tell the truth, of the 1,000 plus minority citizens of Pakistan already charged under the blasphemy laws since 1986, none has been executed, with the sentence most often being overturned on appeal. However, the horrible truth is that 32 of those charged with blasphemy have already been killed by religious fanatics.

Although, Salmaan Taseer had forwarded Aasia’s clemency appeal to the presidency shortly before his murder, no action could be taken by Presdient Asif Ali Zardari as a restraining order had been issued by the former chief justice of Lahore High Court, Justice Khawaja Mohammad Sharif, restraining the presidency on November 29, 2010 from pardoning her before the LHC ruled on her appeal. Khawaja Sharif retired a few days after issuing these restraining orders.

It must be recalled that two months after Taseer’s assassination, the-then federal minister for minorities affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was also shot dead in Islamabad on March 2, 2011. The responsibility for the assassination was placed on the Punjabi Taliban because of a pamphlet found at the place where he was killed. The leaflet claimed that Bhatti had been killed because of his opposition to the blasphemy law. Bhatti’s killers have already been arrested but they have not yet been sentenced.

Aasia Bibi is being held in solitary confinement in an 8-by-10-foot cell without windows for the last five years. While the jail authorities say they want her to be treated like any other prisoner, Aasia had to be kept away from other inmates as some other prisoners accused of blasphemy had been killed while in prison. According to her family circles, Aasia intends to lodge a final appeal with the Supreme Court within 30 days.

http://sacw.net/article9813.html