Islamabad: Pakistan’s Supreme Court will decide on 29 January whether to allow an appeal against its acquittal of a Christian woman who was on death row for eight years for blasphemy. The Supreme Court’s decision in October last year to overturn the conviction of Aasia Bibi sparked nationwide protests and death threats from hardline groups.
Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa will head the three-member bench that will hear the review petition, filed by the complainant in the case Qari Muhammad Salaam, next week on Tuesday, the Dawn reported.
Aasia, a 47-year-old mother of four, who is now in protective custody, was convicted in 2010 after being accused of insulting Islam in a row with her neighbours. She always maintained her innocence but spent most of the past eight years in solitary confinement.
The apex court’s decision to acquit her had sparked three-day-long mass protests led by the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). The protests were called off after the religio-political party reached an agreement with the government, the foremost condition of which was the placement of Aasia’s name on the Exit Control List.
The government, however, had only agreed to “initiate the legal process” to place her name on the list, while also agreeing that it would not oppose any review petitions being filed against the court judgment.
After her release from Multan’s women prison on 7 November, Aasia has flown to Islamabad onboard a special aircraft. She was then taken to an undisclosed place amid tight security. Authorities have remained tight-lipped about her movement and whereabouts for security reasons.
Qari filed the review petition in the case on 1 November 2018, at the Lahore registry of the apex court, urging the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision. The petitioner had sought the placement of Aasia’s name on the Exit Control List (ECL) till the judgement is reviewed.
The petitioner argues that the Supreme Court’s acquittal of Aasia did not meet the standards of jurisprudence as well as Islamic provisions and the “normal principle of justice with reference to application in blasphemy laws”.
It has also asked that a member of the Appellate Shariat Court be included in the bench that reviews the judgement “because this matter needs detailed in-depth consideration and due to the peculiar circumstances of the case as well as Application of Section 295-C in its time letter and spirit”.
It has also challenged the Supreme Court’s dismissal of the alleged “confession” that Aasia was forced to make by the people of her village and argued that the Supreme Court should have applied the Law of Evidence differently in this case.
The case of Aasia has been deeply divisive in Pakistan where there is strong support for the controversial blasphemy laws promulgated by former military dictator Zia ul Haq in the 1980s. A person convicted under these laws is given a death sentence.
Case against Aasia
Aasia was accused of committing blasphemy in 2009. She was convicted in 2010 by the trial court and her death sentence was maintained by the Lahore High Court in 2014. Her case gained prominence when the former governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province Salman Taseer was killed in 2011 for supporting her and criticising the blasphemy laws.
A month after Taseer was killed, Pakistan’s religious minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who spoke out against the blasphemy law, was shot dead in Islamabad.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws
Pakistan has eight enactments against so-called blasphemy.
- Pakistan Penal Code’s (PPC) Section 298 deals with “uttering of any word or making any sound or making any gesture or placing of any object in the sight with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person”. One who is convicted is awarded a sentence of a year of imprisonment, or fine, or both.
- PPC’s Section 298A enacted in 1980 is about the “use of derogatory remarks etc, in respect of holy personages”. The convicted get a sentence of 3 years imprisonment, or fine, or both.
- Enacted on 26 April 1984, the PPC Section 298B targets the Ahmadi community. An Ahmadiya convicted of having misused “epithets, descriptions and titles etc, reserved for certain holy personages or places” is sentenced to three years of imprisonment and a fine.
- On the same day as above, the minority sect of Islam in Pakistan was slapped with another law of the PPC: Section 298C. Also referred to as “Ordinance XX”, the law states, “if a Muslim, or preaching or propagating his faith, or ‘in any manner whatsoever’ outrage the religious feelings of Muslims, or posing himself as a Muslim” he or she will be sentenced to three years imprisonment and a fine.
- A convict gets up to two years imprisonment or fine, or both, under the PPC’s Section 295 for “injuring or defiling places of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class”.
- Section 295A of the PPC retains a colonial-era law made in 1927. Under the section, “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” lead to a sentence of up to 10 years imprisonment, or fine, or both, in the case of conviction.
- The defiling of the Qur’an is dealt with by PPC’s Section 295B, enacted in 1982. The convict is imprisoned for life.
- Finally, Section 295C of the PPC declares the “use of derogatory remarks, spoken, written, directly or indirectly, etc defiles the name of Muhammad or other Prophet(s)” illegal. This law was made in 1986. The convict has to be given the death sentence after finding him/her. The trial under this law must take place in a Court of Session with a Muslim judge presiding.