Pakistani Christians protesting Asia Bibi's death sentence ©Demotix/Hussain Jan
Blasphemy’ death sentence controversy another wakeup call for Pakistan government
By Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International Programme Director for the Asia-Pacific
The international outcry over Asia Bibi, the Christian Pakistani woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, has set off an internal backlash against perceived Western influence in Pakistan. This has put the government in a difficult position – but one of its own making.
The Lahore High Court has ruled that the country’s president can’t yet pardon Asia Bibi, as her case is still being appealed. The government had been making moves towards a pardon, but the ruling has taken place amid pressure from conservative political parties and the street, including protests calling for Asia Bibi’s immediate execution.
The more international condemnation Pakistan faces for discriminatory laws or persecution of religious minorities like Shi’as, Ahmadis, and Christians, the more these cases fuel the anti-Western mood – and from there they can take on a life of their own, in which no-one can predict the outcome, either inside or outside Pakistan.
The religious extremists are no longer even limiting themselves to attacking religious minorities – they have also turned on Sunnis whom they view as insufficiently extreme, such as various Sufi groups that have been part of the region’s variegated religious culture for centuries.
Out of wariness of provoking religious extremists against the government, and desire to avoid making clear decisions either way, the Pakistan government has procrastinated on dealing with the blasphemy laws. But this has just meant that they have failed to prevent patently outrageous injustices that ‘go international’ like the Asia Bibi case: a festering human rights problem that generates terrible PR and can only be solved through – yes – clear decisions.
How can the Pakistani government get away from this destructive dynamic? The Zardari government holds the solution, but has been sitting on its hands, much like its predecessors in General Musharraf’s military government.
After the burning alive of at least seven Christians and the destruction of Christian homes the town of Gojra in August last year, carried out by extremists under pretext of outrage at an alleged act of blasphemy, the Prime Minister announced he would have a committee review “laws detrimental to religious harmony”. A welcome announcement, but so far there have been no concrete results.
The Zardari administration needs to ally with human rights friendly forces within the government and civil society, who have also been embarrassed, if not outraged, by the recent surge in attacks on minorities, ranging from the Asia Bibi case to bomb attacks against Sufis and assaults on girls’ schools and women’s health care clinics. They too are calling for the fulfilment of promises made on the blasphemy laws. Pakistan needs to amend or abolish them, particularly section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code which carries a mandatory death penalty for anyone found guilty of blasphemy.
The vaguely formulated and arbitrarily enforced blasphemy laws are typically employed to harass and persecute religious minorities. For example, in January this year, five Ahmadis, including one minor, were detained on spurious charges of blasphemy in the Layyah district, with no evidence or witnesses to support the charges against them. Even a Pakistani government minister has already said that Asia Bibi’s charges appear to have resulted from a petty squabble at the community well.
As so little evidence is required, blasphemy accusations tend to be unfounded, and too easily motivated either by petty conflicts or mendacious reasons. Although no-one has been executed under the blasphemy laws, there have been unlawful killings of blasphemy suspects in prison, allegedly by guards or other prisoners.
Asia Bibi’s case is yet another wakeup call for the Pakistani government to deal with the religious extremism that is blowing great holes in the country. But with attacks on minority targets escalating in recent years, like this year’s Lahore bombings of a famed Sufi shrine and an Ahmadi mosque, the Pakistan government has received wakeup call after wakeup call. When will it stop sleepwalking toward disaster, and fix the country’s shameful blasphemy laws?
Here is a link to the Amnesty Story: