The laws in Pakistan against blasphemy are an absolute disgrace. They are so expansive and ambiguous that people can use them against their enemies by alleging blasphemy and making their lives intolerable. It seems like charges can be brought easily and religious mobs easily incited who then in turn intimidate authorities into take action against the accused. Hence the decision last week by the Pakistani Supreme Court to overturn the blasphemy conviction of the woman known as Asia Bibi is a welcome development.
It should be noted that the justices only ruled that the case against her had not been proved beyond reasonable doubt and did not rule on the law itself, which was passed in 1860 by the British and added to by Pakistani leaders in the 20th century seeking to pander to zealots. And yet even that minimal approach was enough to infuriate the zealots. Bibi’s case is a testament to how bad the laws are and the power of religious zealots.
Asia Bibi was convicted in 2010 of insulting the Prophet Muhammad during a row with neighbours.
She always maintained her innocence, but has spent most of the past eight years in solitary confinement.
Wednesday’s verdict by the Supreme Court triggered demonstrations in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Multan. Clashes with police have been reported.
A leader of the hard-line Islamist Tehreek-i-Labaik party, Muhammad Afzal Qadri, said all three Supreme Court judges “deserve to be killed”.
The absurdity of the case against her is manifest.
The trial stems from an argument Asia Bibi, whose full name is Asia Noreen, had with a group of women in June 2009.
They were harvesting fruit when a row broke out about a bucket of water. The women said that because she had used a cup, they could no longer touch it, as her faith had made it unclean.
Prosecutors alleged that in the row which followed, the women said Asia Bibi should convert to Islam and that she made offensive comments about the Prophet Muhammad in response.
She was later beaten up at her home, during which her accusers say she confessed to blasphemy. She was arrested after a police investigation.
One good sign is that the new prime minister Imran Khan has criticized the religious hardliners.
Bibi is trying to get asylum for herself and her family because once one is accused of blasphemy, life becomes intolerable. But it appears that in order to appease the hardliners, moves are underway to prevent her from leaving the country.
Pakistan’s authorities have struck a deal with a hard-line Islamist party to end a protest over the acquittal of a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy.
As part of the deal, proceedings will begin to bar Asia Bibi from leaving the country.
The government will also not prevent protesters legally challenging the Supreme Court decision to release her.
It is hard to imagine that in the 21st century we still have blasphemy laws.