For almost eight years, the case of Asia Bibi, accused of blasphemy in Pakistan, has captured world attention.
That same world is now being asked to use Pakistan’s criteria for blasphemy to squelch free speech on social media.
Pakistan, with support from 26 other Muslim-majority nations, wants the world to help it crack down on internet blasphemers. And according to this report from Barnabas Aid and this Reuters news article, Facebook has already agreed to help.
Barnabas Aid reports, “The aim is not simply to remove anything posted on the internet deemed offensive to Islam, but to find out who posted it and prosecute them.” Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar said, “Facebook and other service providers should share all information about the people behind this blasphemous content with us.”
Apparently, Barnabas Aid says, this offensiveness could even include the reporting of cases of persecution of Christians under Islam.
(So if my Facebook and Twitter posts vanish from your feed, you’ll know why.)
But perhaps there are those who feel “preventing offense” Pakistan-style should be exported across the world wide web. (Because we know how easy it is to make everybody happy…) Those people may not be aware of exactly how egregious are the injustices inflicted by blasphemy laws. Let’s study Asia Bibi’s case for a little enlightenment.
Asia Bibi’s Story Illustrates Flaws in the Laws
In June 2009 Asia Bibi, also known as Asia Noreen, was arrested, according to Amnesty International, “after Muslim women labourers refused to drink from a bowl of water she was asked to fetch while out working in the fields. Days later, the women complained that she made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed. Bibi was set upon by a mob, arrested by police and sentenced on 8 November 2010.”
This now-45-year-old Christian farm worker with responsibility for five young children from the village of Ittan Wali, near the Punjabi city of Sheikhupura is the first woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. Her case has been appealed all the way to the highest court in Pakistan. In October 2016 her Supreme Court hearing was “adjourned indefinitely.” Her death sentence has been suspended pending a decision there.
Asia’s story is only one of many cited in an Amnesty International (AI) report to illustrate its findings on the gross abuses of human rights occurring under the umbrella of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. You can download that report here.
Here are some of the examples of injustice that arose in Asia’s case:
- Charges can be pressed by non-eyewitnesses.
Asia’s accuser was a religious cleric who registered the case based on hearsay: two women who worked with Asia told his wife they had heard Asia blaspheme. Reports of what she said that was deemed blasphemous have varied widely.
- Evidence standards are lax and inconsistently applied.
AI reports, “Asia Noreen’s case file obtained by Amnesty International shows that the Lahore High Court upheld her conviction despite inconsistent witness testimonies from the prosecution. For example, the prosecution witnesses gave conflicting accounts regarding the date of a public gathering in which Asia Noreen allegedly confessed uttering derogatory words against the Prophet Muhammad. The witnesses also gave inconsistent accounts regarding the number of people present during the public gathering and where the gathering took place.”
Yet, “the high court judgment stated ‘the prosecution has proved the charge against her through direct unimpeachable evidence’ relating to the allegations.”
- Threats, courtroom disruptions, and mob violence are used to exert pressure on authorities to prosecute blasphemy cases.
AI stated that “In Asia Noreen’s case, there are media reports that the police came under pressure from clerics and a mob to register the case against her.”
During her trial before the high court a group of eight lawyers supporting the complainant “exerted pressure on the court by chanting prayers to interrupt defence lawyers during their arguments. The court did not attempt to silence or eject them.”
- Involvement with a blasphemy case can bring condemnation—or even death.
In court, the judge asked Asia’s lawyer “why he didn’t confront the two main prosecution witnesses about the specific allegations. The lawyer responded by asking the judge how he could repeat the alleged blasphemous words because if he did then he would be seen as committing blasphemy as well.”
(This concern is not unfounded. AI reports that even a TV news station reporting on a different blasphemy case has been charged with blasphemy. Apparently, blasphemy is like leprosy; it’s seen as highly contagious.)
And for those who dare to defend someone accused of blasphemy, the stakes are extremely high. AI says, “On 4 January 2011, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, was killed by one of his security guards, Mumtaz Qadri. He said he committed the murder because, ‘this is the punishment for a blasphemer.’ Salmaan Taseer had sought a presidential pardon for Asia Bibi.” (Mumtaz Qadri was later tried and executed, while multitudes called him a hero and named a mosque after him.)
Should Such Injustice Be Propagated?
The above points are only four of the many problems connected with blasphemy cases. According to AI and other sources there are other problems, including:
- A disproportionate number of blasphemy cases are brought against minorities in Pakistan.
- An accused person is often assumed to be guilty and bears the burden of proof of his/her own innocence.
- Even those acquitted of blasphemy live in danger; many flee their homes when threatened with reprisals.
- Neighbors and families of the accused have come under attack.
- Blasphemy charges are frequently used as a cover for personal vendettas.
Don’t overlook the fact that Pakistan is ignoring its own international treaties on human rights. By signing and ratifying (in 2010) the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), says Amnesty International,
Pakistan has voluntarily made a commitment to respect, protect and fulfill these rights and to put in place the necessary legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures, including by making changes to existing national laws and adopting such new laws or other measures as may be necessary to fulfill these obligations and give effect to the rights recognized in that treaty. These include in particular the rights to: freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief; the right to life; equality before the law and freedom from discrimination; to fair trial; and the prohibition on arbitrary detention.
Pakistan has not met the human rights standards it has already agreed to before the international community. How can it now presume to tell the international community to restrict the rights it has promised to uphold?