The Asia Bibi case: Islamabad to worse

Five days ago For Britain’s deputy leader, Kadeeja Adam welcomed the Pakistan Supreme Court in Islamabad’s decision to free Asia Bibi, whilst lamenting that ‘nothing will change’ for other Christians. It now seems that nothing will change even for Asia.

Five days ago For Britain’s deputy leader, Kadeeja Adam welcomed the Pakistan Supreme Court in Islamabad’s decision to free Asia Bibi, whilst lamenting that ‘nothing will change’ for other Christians. It now seems that nothing will change even for Asia.

The basic facts of the case are now well known.

In 2010 Asia was convicted of disparaging Mohammed at a Pakistan district court and sentenced to death on the basis of two written statements about what she said actually said and several conflicting reports of a ‘confession’ she was said to have made when dragged before a ‘public meeting’ of several hundred neighbours baying for her blood.  

Her conviction gained international attention when the Punjab governor Salmaan Tafseer and Pakistan’s first (and to date, only) minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti were separately assassinated in 2011 for criticising the blasphemy law.  Last week the Supreme Court confirmed that blasphemy should carry the death sentence and treated Asia’s words – “What has Mohammed ever done for the world?” as sufficient to constitute the offence, overturning the conviction merely on the basis of the basis of ‘flimsy evidence’.

Whilst the killer of Salmaan Tafseer had been awaiting trial for his murder, a Barelvi cleric, Khadim Hussein Rizvi, founded the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (“Here I am”) Pakistan party (TLP) to campaign for Pakistan to become a fully Islamic state. Curiously unreported upon by the rest of the world the TLP wrought chaos in Pakistan in 2017 when the government attempted to change the oath of office to a secular declaration. In street protests the TLP paralysed Pakistan’s intercity road network for three weeks and withstood government attempts to dislodge them in deadly battles, before the government backed down claiming, implausibly that the planned change in wording from ‘oath’ to ‘declaration’ had been a mere ‘clerical error’.

After the announcement of Asia’s acquittal the TLP retook the streets, calling for the death not only of Asia but of all three Supreme Court justices who had acquitted her. This time it took the newly elected government of Imran Khan just three days to cave to the mob.

An application to the Supreme Court to review its decision has been lodged and the government has promised neither to oppose the application nor to permit Asia to leave the country in the meantime.

It makes sense for a country’s apex court to have a ‘slip rule’ to revisit its decisions to correct a mistake or irregularity, or where a new fact has come to light. However, whilst Asia Bibi languished in prison for eight years, the meagre evidence against her contained within her file has become the most controversial and important case in Pakistan’s history. Nobody is seriously suggesting that there might be new evidence, or arguments to be presented, nor even that the justices’ view on the evidence might have been flawed. The re-hearing is an undisguised surrender by the state to the mob.  Abandoned on those they rely on for protection the Supreme Court justices, now face an invidious choice either to reverse last week’s acquittal as another clerical error; or face likely death. Asia’s lawyer, Saif-ul-Mulook a man of undoubted courage who has himself lost his freedom for taking on her case, has now lost hope in the state’s ability to protect him and fled the country saying he can do nothing to help her if he is not alive.

These terrible events should be of grave concern to us all for three reasons.

 

Firstly, even on the basis of last week’s acquittal decision no Christian in Pakistan now has even a vestige of rights under the law. Asia’s ‘blasphemy’ (‘What did Mohammed ever do for the world?’) consisted not of an insult to Mohammed but merely of a failure to grant him religious significance. This is inherent in not being a Muslim. Any Muslim may now make any demand of any non-Muslim with both in the knowledge that, under the law, a mere allegation from the former that the latter has failed to acknowledge Mohammed as God’s Messenger can see the latter condemned to death.  

 

Second, this latest climbdown to the demands of a religiously-crazed mob, is yet another faltering of Pakistan’s claim to follow the rule of law. There can be no doubt that Pakistan’s large, well equipped and ruthless army is perfectly capable of clearing a few traffic junctions from a rabble of protesters. Their failure to do so is just the latest sign (after the nurturing of the Taliban and the sheltering of Osama Bin Laden) that the army, for its own reasons, supports Islam over democracy. Last week Pakistan lurched a step closer to becoming another Islamic state – this time with the means to pursue jihad with nuclear weapons.

 

Third we may nervously look closer to home where 38% of British Muslims are of Pakistani descent. This group is not only the largest but also the most segregated of Britain’s Muslim communities, concentrated in the West Midlands, Bradford and northern mill towns, with an astonishing propensity (estimated at 70%) to marry relatives – often their first cousins - from Pakistan, and resulting in ‘a first immigrant generation every generation’ and some children raised in almost complete isolation from mainstream British society. There is no magic filter on the white cliffs of Dover than turns Islamists to democrats. The shocking events in Pakistan today give us a terrifying glimpse into what awaits some of our inner cities tomorrow if Britain continues to accommodate intolerance.

Paul Ellis, Law Spokesman, For Britain Movement

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