After eight years on death row, Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s decision to sentence Christian mother, Asia Bibi, to death on false blasphemy charges.
Bibi’s ordeal began in 2009 over a row with her neighbors. They had been picking fruit, but when the group went to grab a drink of water, her Muslim neighbors claimed that if she drank out of the water bowl, the water would be defiled due to her Christian faith. Her neighbors then allegedly tried to convert her to Islam. Bibi refused, and they proceeded to accuse her of blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed.
Pakistani law recognizes eight blasphemous acts, including making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed or defaming the Koran. Persons found guilty of blasphemy may be sentenced to life in prison or death, although the death sentence has never been carried out.
Blasphemy laws in Pakistan and elsewhere receive heavy criticism from the international community. A U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report found that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are second only to Iran in contravening international law. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are especially pernicious because they target religious minorities.
While Bibi was lucky to be acquitted, her journey to freedom is not yet over. The controversial ruling sparked protests throughout the country – protests that may pose a threat to her life, as well as to other Christians and religious minorities in the country, people often without the support they need in the system to defend them.
Supporters of the hardline Islamist party, Tehreek-e-Lebaik (TLP), led protests across Pakistan expressing their opposition to the Supreme Court’s ruling. One of the TLP’s leaders even called for the death of the three Supreme Court judges who presided over Bibi’s case. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan called on hardline groups to dispense with protests and violence.
Between 1990 and 2011, at least 50 people accused of blasphemy in Pakistan died in prison waiting for their case to be heard or were killed extra-judicially. Two other deaths are associated with Bibi’s case. In early 2011, Pakistan’s Governor of the Punjab Salman Taseer and Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti were assassinated by religious extremists because of their efforts to defend Bibi and roll back the controversial blasphemy laws.
The atmosphere is likely to be tense in the days ahead – especially for Pakistan’s religious minorities. This year, for the first time in the history of the State Department’s International Religious Freedom report, Pakistan was placed on a “Special Watch List” for its violations of religious freedom. If conditions do not improve, Pakistan may be labeled a “country of particular concern,” making the country vulnerable to sanctioning for its religious freedom violations.
A 2015 Heritage Foundation report I co-authored with Lisa Curtis called on Pakistan to overturn Asia Bibi’s conviction and release her. The report also called for Pakistan to be labeled a country of particular concern if it fails to review its blasphemy laws and establish a special police task force to protect religious minorities in the country.
The report specifically noted:
Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, supported the idea of Islam serving as a unifying force and believed Pakistanis had a responsibility to uphold the principles of religious freedom and to protect the rights of religious minorities.
Overturning Asia Bibi’s death sentence is a good first step toward reviving the principles Pakistan was founded on, but cultivating a spirit of religious freedom in the country is about far more than just one court case. The international community should watch closely in the coming weeks and pay attention to the plight of minorities in the aftermath of the sentence.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/oliviaenos/2018/11/02/asia-bibis-case-hopefully-the-1st-of-many-steps-taken-to-restore-religious-freedom-in-pakistan/#313b6c992629