Aasia bibi has been facing execution since 2010 on charges of blasphemy, the mere accusation of which is enough to put an individual’s life in mortal peril. The evidence against her is untenable, but opposition from the religious right has prevented the state from securing her release. The Lahore High Court upheld her death sentence in October 2014, but this is hardly surprising given the real threat of murder that befalls anyone who is given her case if the decision is not according to the wishes of those who want to see her executed. However, the Supreme Court of Pakistan decided to suspend her execution on July 22, 2015, and it was expected to hear her appeal this week, but on Thursday, the court adjourned the appeal indefinitely. The reason behind this was Justice Iqbal Hameed-ur-Rahman’s decision to not be part of the bench to hear Aasia’s case because of his involvement in Mumtaz Qadri’s case, the person who was executed for killing the former governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer.
Aasia bibi was alleged to have committed blasphemy during a row with a group of women over a bowl of water in the village Ittan Wali in Punjab in 2009. The testimonies of the women involved conflict with the accounts of other witnesses. Even the accusation was made by the imam of the local mosque in a sermon who was not present during the incident. While Aasia has been in jail ever since, her husband Ashiq Mashih and their children have been in hiding. For Aasia the mental trauma that she must be under for the past seven years is unimaginable, and the way the lives of her family have been affected through this ordeal is deplorable. Hence, the adjournment by the Supreme Court for hearing her appeal is further delaying Aasia’s suffering, who should have been freed long before.
While no one in Pakistan has been executed yet on charges of blasphemy, the law has become an instrument of oppression especially in the case of minorities. When a mere accusation of blasphemy is enough for angry crowds to take law into their hands, and judges — especially those of lower courts fear suffering the wrath of these supposed vigilantes lest they set the alleged blasphemer free — minorities can hardly feel safe. More often than not, the blasphemy law in Pakistan is used to settle personal scores or to force families into hiding so that their properties can be taken over. And in some cases, it is merely out of sheer bigotry and intolerance to target people of other faith. If a Christian teenage boy, Nabeel Chohan, can be accused and arrested for ‘liking’ a derogatory picture of Holy Kaaba on social media, a person who in all likelihood is too young to understand the ramifications of his actions, then there is something seriously wrong with the application of a law that is there to ensure respect for religious figures and sentiments.
Pakistan is turning into a more intolerant and bigoted place day-by-day, and such instances bear testimony to this reality. Unless the state starts to fulfil its responsibility of protecting its citizens rather than sanction their oppression, the voices of intolerance would continue to drown out those who wish to reform. And it is the voices of tolerance that must be provided greater space by the state rather than capitulation to those forces that do not want Pakistan to be a place where the rights of all citizens are protected.