By Elton Gomes
After violent protests opposing the acquittal of Asia Bibi have disrupted Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday appealed to the people to remain calm and warned hardliners against confronting the State.
Bibi was given a death sentence in 2010 after she was found guilty of insulting Islam. The Lahore High Court maintained her death sentence in 2014. However, the Supreme Court, on Wednesday acquitted her, leading to violent protests and death threats from an ultra-religious party.
Who is Asia Bibi, and what was she accused of?
Asia Bibi is a 47-year-old Christian farm labourer and mother of five children from the Punjab Province. Bibi was on death row since 2010. She was accused of committing blasphemy in 2009. A trial court had found her guilty of the crime and awarded her the death sentence.
Bibi was convicted for blasphemy under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code for allegedly defaming Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).
What is Pakistan’s blasphemy law?
Under the Pakistani penal code, the offence of blasphemy is punishable by death or life imprisonment.
In 1860, under British Raj law, it became a crime to disturb a religious assembly, trespass on burial grounds, insult religious beliefs, or intentionally destroy or defile a place or an object of worship. Such acts could invite a jail sentence of up to 10 years.
During the 1980s as Islamic influence grew in Pakistan, the law was expanded, and making derogatory remarks against Islamic personages was considered an offence thereafter.
What did the Supreme Court say?
A three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mian Saqib Nisar, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel had reserved the case’s ruling on Bibi’s appeal against execution on October 8. The Supreme Court accepted the appeal in 2015.
“The appeal is allowed. She has been acquitted. The judgement of the high court, as well as trial court, is reversed,” CJP Nisar said, AFP reported. “Her conviction is set aside and she is to be relieved forthwith if not required in other charges.”
The 56-page detailed judgement included a separate concurrent opinion note from Justice Khosa. Justice Khosa, in his note, said: “Blasphemy is a serious offence 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 (Peace Be Upon Him) was also not short of being blasphemous,” as per the AFP report.
Chaudhry Ghulam Mustafa, a lawyer for one of the plaintiffs, opposed the verdict and said that Bibi had confessed to making derogatory remarks against the Prophet to seek pardon.
Bibi’s lawyer Saiful Mulook told AFP: “The verdict has shown that the poor, the minorities and the lowest segments of society can get justice in this country despite its shortcomings. This is the biggest and happiest day of my life.”
The allegations against Bibi were that she made three “defamatory and sarcastic” statements about the Prophet (PBUH) on June 14, 2009. She had done so during an argument with three Muslim women while the four of them were picking fruit in a field.
The prosecution also claimed that Bibi “admitted” to making these statements at a “public gathering” on June 19, 2009, and had also asked for forgiveness.
After a trial court convicted Bibi for blasphemy in November 2010 and sentenced her to death, the Lahore High Court upheld her conviction and confirmed her death sentence in October 2014.
After that, Bibi’s lawyers approached the Supreme Court and seek repeal of her sentence.
On October 8, a special three-member Supreme Court bench reserved its judgement on Bibi’s appeal. At the time, the Supreme Court did not specify when the verdict would be announced. On October 31, the Supreme Court acquitted Bibi, after accepting her appeal against her death sentence.
What happened after the verdict?
Shortly after the ruling, hundreds of protesters blocked a key road linking Rawalpindi with Islamabad. Several people also gathered to hold a protest in Karachi and Peshawar. Similar rallies were also held in other places.
On October 13, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, an Islamic political party which is headed by preacher Khadim Hussain Rizvi, threatened to “paralyse the country within hours if the Supreme Court sets Asia Bibi free”.
Who is protesting?
The hardline Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party (TLP) strongly urged its supporters to take to the streets. The party, which adheres to Sunni Barelvi beliefs, said the judges presiding over Bibi’s case were wajib-ul-qatl — liable to be killed.
TLP leaders have promised to oppose the verdict until the government bows down. Another right-wing political alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, has also pledged to hold a “million man march” in the port city of Karachi next week.
On the calls of Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Sirajul Haq, political parties such as the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) yesterday staged a protest in front of the press club in Bannu against Bibi’s acquittal.
During the protests, a local leader of the JUI passed anti-Semitic remarks and accused the Imran Khan’s government of being under the foreign influence. He added that from the court’s verdict, it had “become clear why an Israeli plane came to Pakistan”.
What has PM Imran Khan said?
Taking a tough stance on the issue, Prime Minister Imran Khan warned hardliners to not “confront the State” and refrain from vandalism. “I ask these elements (protestors) to avoid confronting the State. But if they opted to do so, the State will fulfil its responsibilities,” Khan said in a video message.
“We will protect life and property of people…We will not let them (protestors) involve in vandalism or close down the roads,” Khan added.
Khan appealed to the public to remain calm and refrain from joining those who were trying to disrupt the law and order in the name of Islam. “How a State can function in such circumstances…Those involved in this are not doing any service to Islam. They are in fact enemies of Islam,” Khan said, as per a PTI report.
He asserted that the verdict was issued in the light of Pakistan’s constitution, which is also based on Islam. He further said the government was working hard to improve the economy, but the protestors were only aiming to get political mileage out of the verdict.
Recent reports stated that protests continue to rock Pakistan for the third consecutive day after Bibi was acquitted. All roads in major Pakistani cities have been blocked as the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party (TLP) called for a shutter-down strike.
At least 14 major religious groups have now joined in the protests. They were seen burning tyres and throwing stones at vehicles on the road. Religious clerics have vehemently opposed the Supreme Court’s verdict, and are demanding that Bibi should be executed publicly.
The TLP said talks with the government have failed. “Talks have completely failed, Federal and provincial representatives and an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) General Faiz took part in talks,” Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the TLP’s leader said in a tweet on Friday, the News reported.
Further details indicated that mobile and internet services have been suspended in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, and Gujranwala due to security concerns after the protests. Furthermore, on account of the grim situation, all government and private educational institutes in Islamabad and Punjab were shut yesterday to avoid any untoward situation.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius.
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