Supreme Court of Pakistan Acquits Christian Mother Facing Execution on False Charge

Islamists issue fatwa of death for high court justices.

Sunni Tehreek decree of Oct. 11, 2016 calling for execution of Aayisa Noreen (Asia Bibi). (Morning Star News)

Sunni Tehreek decree of Oct. 11, 2016 calling for execution of Aayisa Noreen (Asia Bibi). (Morning Star News)

LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – Pakistan’s Supreme Court today acquitted Aasiya Noreen, better known as Asia Bibi, a Christian mother condemned to death for alleged blasphemy, triggering violent protests and clashes in several cities across the country.

After accepting her 2015 appeal in the high-profile case, a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mian Saqib Nisar, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel had on Oct. 8 reserved its verdict on Noreen’s final legal appeal against her execution.

“Today, justice has prevailed and Bibi will soon be a free woman,” her attorney, Saiful Malook, told Morning Star News by phone from Islamabad, where he had gone to hear the judgment. “This is the happiest day of my life.”

As soon as the verdict was announced, he telephoned the superintendent of the maximum security Multan Central Jail, where Noreen has been kept for several years, to inform her about the decision, he said. Noreen is the mother of two children with Masih and stepmother to three from his previous marriage.

The top court had accepted Malook’s appeal challenging the Lahore High Court’s October 2014 verdict upholding a trial court’s November 2010 decision sentencing Bibi to death for allegedly committing blasphemy in 2009.

“Bibi is very happy but also in a state of disbelief,” Malook said. “She asked me if she will now be allowed to come out of jail, and I told her that it was a matter of hardly a day or two for completion of the paperwork, and she’ll be free soon.”

Her husband, Ashiq Masih, currently in London along with his two daughters, was also very happy after hearing the news on telephone, he said.

“Bibi has spent nearly nine years in jail and is very excited to return to her family,” Malook said, adding that by deciding the appeal on merit and disregarding the mounting pressure of Islamist outfits, the Supreme Court had helped to restore the confidence of minorities and weaker segments of society in the judicial system.

The Judgment

Authored by CJP Nisar, the judgment states: “The appeal is allowed. She [Bibi] has been acquitted. The judgment of high court as well as trial court is reversed. Her conviction is set aside, and she is to be relieved forthwith if not required in other charges.”

The three-judge panel noted that Noreen was wrongly accused by two Muslim sisters with the help of a local cleric, based on “material contradictions and inconsistent statements of the witnesses” that “cast a shadow of doubt on the prosecution’s version of facts.”

“Furthermore, the alleged extra-judicial confession was not voluntary but rather resulted out of coercion and undue pressure as the appellant was forcibly brought before the complainant in presence of a gathering, who were threatening to kill her; as such, it cannot be made the basis of a conviction,” they wrote. “Therefore, the appellant being innocent deserves acquittal.”

The judgment also carried a separate concurrent opinion note from Justice Khosa, who is known as an authority on Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC).

Announcing the verdict, CJP Nisar said that tolerance is the basic principle of Islam, adding that the religion condemns injustice and oppression.

“It is a well settled principle of law that one who makes an assertion has to prove it. Thus, the onus rests on the prosecution to prove guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt throughout the trial,” he noted in the order. “Presumption of innocence remains throughout the case until such time the prosecution on the evidence satisfies the court beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of the offence alleged.

“The expression ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt’ is of fundamental importance to the criminal justice: it is one of the principles which seeks to ensure that no innocent person is convicted.

“Keeping in mind the evidence produced by the prosecution against the alleged blasphemy committed by the appellant, the prosecution has categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.”

The court also noted, “It is not for the individuals, or a gathering [mob], to decide as to whether any act falling within the purview of Section 295-C [of the blasphemy law] has been committed or not, because as stated earlier, it is the mandate of the court to make such decision after conducting a fully qualified trial and on the basis of credible evidence brought before it.”

The CJP ended the verdict with a saying of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad on the rights of minorities: “Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I (Muhammad) will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.”

Muhammad’s Covenant Violated

In his note, Justice Khosa said that Noreen’s accusers had also violated a covenant made by Muhammad with Christian monks on Mt. Sinai in 628.

“The promise made was eternal and universal and was not limited to St. Catherine alone,” he wrote. “The rights conferred by the charter are inalienable, and the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) had declared that Christians, all of them, were his allies, and he equated ill treatment of Christians with violating God’s covenant.

“It is noticeable that the charter imposed no conditions on Christians for enjoying its privileges, and it was enough that they were Christians,” he wrote. “They were not required to alter their beliefs, they did not have to make any payments and they did not have any obligations. The charter was of rights without any duties and it clearly protected the right to property, freedom of religion, freedom of work, and security of person.

“Blasphemy is a serious offense, but the insult of the appellant’s religion and religious sensibilities by the complainant party and then mixing truth with falsehood in the name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad was also not short of being blasphemous.

“It is ironical that in the Arabic language the appellant’s name Aasia means ‘sinful,’ but in the circumstances of the present case she appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘more sinned against than sinning.’”

Protests Break Out

Soon after the high court announced on Tuesday evening (Oct. 30) that it would announce its judgment at 9 a.m. today, Islamist outfits, including the ultra-extremist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), called on their supporters to “remain awake all night and be prepared to sacrifice their lives for the honor of Muhammad if the court frees the ‘blasphemer Aasia.’”

The TLP, led by radical cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, had already threatened to “paralyze the country within hours if the Supreme Court sets Aasia free.”

Anticipating such a ruling, the hard-line Islamist party held countrywide protests on Oct. 14 and warned that “judges and army generals” would meet a “horrible” end if Noreen were released.

The TLP is a staunch supporter of the blasphemy law and openly justifies violence to safeguard Namoos-e-Risalat (honor of the prophet).

“Any judge who acquits Asia must be killed,” TLP patron Pir Afzal Qadri told a public gathering as the Supreme Court panel announced the verdict. “Even the state should kill him because he has become an apostate by releasing her. Earlier, based on my fatwa [edict], Arif Iqbal Bhatti [a Lahore High Court judge who had released two Christians in 1997 in a frivolous blasphemy charge] was killed by a lion, Ahmed Sher Niazi. Now I give the same fatwa [for these Supreme Court judges].”

Thousands of angry Muslims blocked roads and main highways in several cities of Pakistan, including Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Gujranwala, Faisalabad, Bahawalnagar, Bahawalpur, Karachi and Hyderabad, and protested against Bibi’s acquittal.

All markets and trade centers were shut down in federal capital Islamabad, as well as in Punjab and Sindh provinces, as both provincial government imposed Section 144, which bars gatherings of four or more persons, until Nov. 10. Authorities deployed large contingents of police and paramilitary Rangers to maintain law and order amid vitriolic speeches by Islamist clerics asking furious mobs to “fight the army and the government forces” when they free Noreen.

“They [the judges] have freed the blasphemer Aasia,” said TLP leader Rizvi in a video message to his followers. “What’s the use of our lives if we are not able to protect the honor of our beloved Prophet? Do not desist from punishing all those responsible for protecting Aasia, and do whatever is necessary to stop her from fleeing from Pakistan.”

As protests raged across cities with reports of clashes between Muslim mobs and security personnel, several mainstream Islamist political parties, including Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and Milli Yakjehti Council, also came out in the open to denounce the decision and called on their supporters to come out on the roads to stop the government from releasing Noreen.

Addressing a National Assembly session today, JUI-F parliamentarian Maulana Asad Mehmood claimed that “the people of Pakistan have rejected the SC verdict in Aasia Bibi’s case.”

He later walked out of the session with other JUI-F lawmakers in protest.

Decision Lauded

At the same time, Pakistan’s progressive parties and activists praised the Supreme Court for “showing spine” and not bowing to Islamists’ pressure.

Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, whose party governs Sindh Province, urged all national institutions to stand with the Supreme Court on its decision to acquit Noreen.

“The Supreme Court is our national institution. All other institutions, including the National Assembly, should stand with the Supreme Court,” he said in a statement. “We cannot run the country from the streets. We can [only] run this country according to the Constitution and law.”

Amnesty International’s South Asia Deputy Director Omar Waraich said in a statement, that the Supreme Court’s verdict must make it clear that blasphemy laws will no longer be abused in Pakistan.

“This is a landmark verdict,” he said. “For the past eight years, Asia Bibi’s life languished in limbo…The message must go out that the blasphemy laws will no longer be used to persecute the country’s most vulnerable minorities.”

PPP Sen. Sherry Rehman termed the acquittal of Noreen a “landmark judgment” and urged the state to “protect those who stand for the rule of law and justice.”

She tweeted, “Landmark judgment by Supreme Court to acquit #AasiaBibi today. False accusers took half her life away. Now the state must protect all those who stand for the rule of law and justice. We have all been witness to the havoc mobs have wreaked to red lines before. That line must be held.”

Prominent human rights activist Jibran Nasir called for reforms “to prevent abuse of religious laws.”

“Prayers for well being of #AsiaBibi and her family. Today’s verdict once again highlights need for reforms to prevent abuse of religious laws to victimize innocents. The same reforms which Salman Taseer advocated and was martyred for. That is the only way forward,” he said in a tweet.

Christians Nervous

The Pakistani Christian community remained nervous about the repercussions of Noreen’s release.

More than 60 people have been killed over blasphemy accusations – a fact cited by the judges in their judgment acquitting Bibi – and dozens of communal attacks have taken place against Christians on the pretext of blasphemy.

Christians are the only religious minority that has publicly demanded the repeal or amendment of the controversial blasphemy laws, largely because they are the only religious minority that, disproportionate to its size, has suffered so many attacks, brutalities, and criminal litigation on account of the laws, critics say.

“Although the government has deployed Rangers and police in Christian-dominated neighborhoods in Punjab, the risk of violence on Christians cannot be ruled out,” said the Rev. Hanooq Haq, pastor of the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Lahore.

He urged the Pakistani government to ensure protection of lives and property of Christians living across Pakistan, while adding that the verdict “has vindicated our stance that the blasphemy law is used to settle personal scores.”

Advocate Aneeqa Maria of The Voice Society said the backlash of the verdict was likely to affect blasphemy cases involving Christians.

“We had fixed a bail application of a Christian youth accused in a blasphemy case for Thursday (Nov. 1),” she said. “I fear that the bail might be rejected by the high court due to the prevailing situation. Nevertheless, the verdict in Asia Bibi’s case is a watershed moment for Pakistani Christians and a step forward in the right direction.”

False Case

Aasia Bibi was the first Christian woman sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and only the second (after Ayub Masih, released in 2002) whose blasphemy case has gone up to the Supreme Court and won release.

The allegations against Bibi were that she made three “defamatory and sarcastic” statements about Muhammad on June 14, 2009 during an argument with three Muslim women while the four of them were picking Falsa berries in a field in Sheikhupura District in Punjab.

Noreen was asked to fetch water, but the Muslim women objected, saying that as a non-Muslim she was unfit to touch the water bowl. The women later went to a local cleric and accused her of blasphemy against Muhammad.

The prosecution had claimed that Noreen “admitted” making the blasphemous statements at a “public gathering” on June 19, 2009 “while asking for forgiveness.”

A trial court convicted her for blasphemy in November 2010 and sentenced her to death. A month later, Islamist cleric Maulana Yousaf Qureshi put a $5,000 bounty on her head while the Pakistani state failed to charge him.

The Lahore High Court (LHC) upheld Bibi’s conviction and confirmed her death sentence in October 2014. She then had challenged the LHC verdict in the Supreme Court, which stayed her execution in July 2015 and admitted her appeal for hearing.

The top court had first taken up the appeal in October 2016 but had to adjourn the matter without hearing after one of the judges recused himself from the Supreme Court bench. Two years later, the appeal was heard earlier this month, and the CJP Nisar-led bench reserved its verdict.

In January 2011, former Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, who spoke out in support of Bibi, was gunned down in broad daylight in Islamabad. His assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was executed in 2016 after the court found him guilty of murder. He was hanged in February 2016. The TLP was founded by those finding Qadri’s hanging unjustified.

Only two months after Taseer’s killing, the only Christian minister in the federal cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also gunned down by members of Tehreek-e-Taliban for supporting Noreen and for advocating that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws be amended.

Noreen’s case sparked widespread outrage in the international community over the country’s notorious blasphemy laws, but all appeals to abolish the legislation have fallen on deaf ears.

According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, 71 countries have blasphemy laws, and around a quarter of them are in the Middle East and North Africa, with about a fifth in Europe, though enforcement and punishment varies.

Pakistan is one of the fiercest enforcers. At least 1,472 people were charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2016, according to statistics collected by the Center for Social Justice. Of those, 730 were Muslims, 501 were Ahmadis, a sect reviled by mainstream Muslims as heretical, while 205 were Christians and 26 were Hindus. The CSJ reported it didn’t know the religion of the final 10 because they were killed by vigilantes before they could get their day in court.

While Pakistan’s law carries the death penalty for blasphemy and offenders have been sentenced to death, so far no one has ever been executed. If Noreen’s appeal had been rejected, she would have become the first Christian and first woman to be executed on blasphemy charges in Pakistan.

Pakistan is ranked fifth on Christian support group Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

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