October 13 was to be a dramatic day in Pakistan. The final hearing of the blasphemy case of Christian mother of five Asia Bibi was scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court.
In June 2009, Bibi was out picking fruit in the fields. At midday she went to the nearest well, picked up a cup, took a drink of cool water and then offered it to another woman. Suddenly, one of her fellow workers cried out that the water belonged to Muslim women and that Bibi—who is Christian—had contaminated it.
“Blasphemy!” someone shouted, a crime punishableby death in Pakistan. In that instant, with one word, Bibi’s life changed. First attacked by a mob, Bibi was then thrown into prison and later sentenced to be hanged. For the past seven years, Bibi has been held in appalling conditions. Her family members have had to flee their village under threat from vengeful extremists and the public figures who came to Bibi’s defense—the Muslim governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer, and Pakistan’s Christian Minister for Minorities—were brutally murdered. In 2014, a Pakistani appeals court upheld the sentence of death by hanging for Bibi’s supposed crime of making derogatory statements about Mohammed, the founder of Islam (which she denies).
But on October 13, with the eyes of the world watching, a different kind of drama happened in the courtroom. Supreme Court Justice Iqbal Hameed-ur-Rehman, one of the judges of Bibi’s hearing panel recused himself, saying he had a conflict of interest since he was part of the panel of judges in the Salman Taseer case. (Taseer was murdered by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, for helping Bibi and speaking out about Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.)
Thus, Bibi’s last hearing started and ended in only two minutes. The senior-most judge on the panel, Saqib Nisar, adjourned the court for an indefinite time and announced that the case would be sent to the chief justice of Pakistan to re-schedule a new hearing excluding Justice Rehman.
The bizarre circumstances of the court’s refusal to hear the case begs a number of questions: First, if this really was a conflict of interest for the judge, why didn’t he recuse himself earlier? Was there another reason for his sudden withdrawal timed right for the start of the hearing? Was it all just a show to be able to delay the hearing?
Consider the following circumstances: Ten days ago, 150 leading Muslim clerics, mostly Sunnis, issued a fatwa declaring that Bibi must be put to death. In addition, leading campaigners against Bibi sent a clear message to the masses that anyone who helps Bibi will be punished.
Hence, in the current political atmosphere of Pakistan, even the judges found themselves in a difficult situation.
The national and international media was heavily covering the case. Bibi’s lawyer, Saif-ul-Malook tried to argue before the court that since the entire world was watching, the hearing should not be delayed, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.
If the hearing had not been delayed and Bibi had been acquitted, the judges would have experienced backlash from extremists and their lives would most likely have been in danger, as would have been the lives of Bibi and her immediate family.
As it was, Bibi was not even brought into the court due to security reasons. However, her husband, Ashiq Masih, was there to see the final outcome of the case and, in the presence of fundamentalists who had gathered in the courtroom, was terrified.
What is now clear is that courts are not free in Pakistan to decide cases.
While the judges of the panel were very much aware of the international push for Asia’s freedom, they were also aware that internally, Islamic clerics fiercely opposed these efforts and had planned a nationwide response to counter any decision against their wishes.
In addition, the government is dealing with severe tension at the border with India in the occupied Kashmir territory.
Finally, the destabilizing effects of the mounting differences between the civilian government and Pakistan’s strong army were most likely also taken into account in the decision to delay the trial.
All told, it was in the interest of the government that Asia’s case should be left undecided (perhaps permanently). In the present scenario, the weakened government of Pakistan could not have handled the pressure of Islamic fundamentalists if the court had overturned her sentence.
And if the court had upheld the sentence, Bibi’s execution would have put Pakistan in a precarious situation internationally.
By choosing this delaying tactic, the judiciary and the government saved their skin. It is sadly evident that, in Pakistan’s present circumstances, there will be no justice for Bibi.
Kaleem Dean is human rights activist and journalist from Pakistan. He currently lives in the UK. He was the publisher of Christian Monitor in Pakistan, a leading Christian newspaper which covers minority issues. He presently writes for various Pakistani papers. Write to him at [email protected]