Pakistan court upholds death penalty for Asia Bibi despite serious legal loophole in trial

The first Christian woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws had her appeal rejected by the High Court in Lahore on Thursday.

Aasiya Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi, received the death penalty in 2010 after she allegedly made derogatory comments about the Prophet Mohammed during an argument with a Muslim woman.

While the two women were working together, the Muslim woman had refused water from Noreen on the grounds that it was unclean because it had been handled by a Christian.

The Muslim woman, together with her sister, were the only two witnesses in the case, but the defence failed to convince the appeals judges that their evidence lacked credibility.

Noreen, first arrested in the summer of 2009, has already spent five years in prison. Her defence team has one more opportunity to appeal her case by taking it to Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

Noreen was accused of blasphemy against the Prophet of Islam and the Qur’an in June 2009, when she was working in the fields as a laborer in Sheikhupura. A religious argument broke out between her and her co-workers after she brought water for one of them. One of her co-workers objected that the mere touch of a Christian had made the water haram, or religiously forbidden for Muslims. Noreen was told to convert to Islam in order to become purified of her ritual impurity. Her rejoinder was perceived as an insult of Islam and hence she was accused of committing blasphemy.

Muhammad Amin Bukhari, the Superintendent of Police who investigated Noreen’s case, testified in the trial court that the religious argument broke out over the drinking water, and not about the Prophet or the Koran. The trial court judge nonetheless convicted her and gave her the death penalty.

The case attracted international attention, and Noreen has had some high-profile supporters.

 

                                 Ashiq Masih, husband of Asia Noreen, and their two daughters
in a 2010 photo
Ashiq Masih, husband of Asia Noreen, and their two daughters in a 2010 photoCLAAS photo

Pope Benedict XVI appealed to the Pakistani government for clemency. The then-Governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, went to meet Noreen in prison and prepared a petition for mercy, which he had intended to submit to the President of Pakistan.

Before Taseer could convey the petition to the president, his own police guard killed him Jan. 4, 2011 on account of his support Noreen and his characterization of the blasphemy laws as “black laws.” Two months later, the only Christian member of the cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, was killed. Bhatti had supported Noreen and sought to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which often are used to settle personal scores and pressure religious minorities.

The Lahore High Court began hearing the appeal in March this year, but the case kept circulating among several judges who postponed its hearing. Legal sources told World Watch Monitor that judges were unwilling to decide the case because of fear of reprisal from extremist elements.

Most of Thursday’s four-hour hearing was given over to arguments made by Noreen’s counsel, Naeem Shakir. The judges, Muhammad Anwar-ul-Haq and Shahbaz Ali Rizvi, postponed all other cases scheduled for the day. The complainant in the case, Muslim cleric Muhammad Saalam, was presented along with a few other men in the court. Saalam was represented by a group of lawyers headed by Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, a Supreme Court lawyer and president of the Khatme Nabuwat (Finality of Prophethood) Lawyers’ Forum.

Shakir argued that Noreen’s trial-court conviction had been based on hearsay, as Salaam himself did not witness the exchange between Noreen and her co-workers. He said it was at a local village council, or panchayat, where Noreen was forced to confess the alleged instance of blasphemy. The judges categorically stated that Pakistani law would not take into account any such confession made to a random group, and they set aside evidence of all the witnesses related to the village council.

The court, however, said that there were two sisters — Mafia Bibi and Asma Bibi — who had appeared in the trial court and testified they had witnessed the incident of alleged blasphemy. Shakir told the court that on the day it happened, Noreen had brought some water for other fieldworkers, and that the sisters refused to take it, saying they could not take water from the hands of a Christian woman.

Shakir said a quarrel arose between Noreen and the two women, which later was made to appear as a religious conflict. He said the nature of the quarrel had its source in the Hindu caste system (in which most Pakistani Christians are considered “untouchable”) than a conflict between the Christian and Islamic faiths.

Shakir said the evidence from the two sisters should have been corroborated by some independent evidence in the trial court, as these two sisters would have been prejudiced towards her. The appeals judges, however, observed that sisters’ testimony should have been challenged at the trial court, rather than taken up at the appellate court.

Attorney S. K. Chaudhry, who represented Noreen at her trial, told the appeals judges Thursday that as a Muslim he could not repeat the blasphemous words, so he did not cross-examine the two sisters because it involved discussing those blasphemous statements. One of the appeals judges responded that “in the process of administration of justice we need to be ‘secular.’”

Shakir was more successful when he argued the trial court had a religious bias against Noreen. Referring to the argument that took place between Noreen and two sisters, the trial court had noted the following:

“So, the question arises, what type or nature of hot words would be there in between Christian and Muslim ladies when the quarrel started from the refusal of drinking water by the Muslim ladies from the hands of a Christian lady. So, the phenomenon was ultimately switched into a religious matter and ‘hot words’ could not have been anything other than the blasphemy.”

Judge Anwar-ul-Haq brushed aside the trial judge’s observation, saying no judge in the world could infer whether “hot words” could be construed as blasphemy, or not.

Shakir also informed the court that the original complaint, known as a first information report (FIR), had been lodged by the cleric Salaam five days after the quarrel. He argued that, during the trial, the only reason given for the delay was “deliberation and consultation,” and said Salaam had acknowledged this in the trial court.

He said other appeals courts have ruled that if a delay in lodging an FIR is due to consultation and deliberation, the complaint should be dismissed. On Thursday, the appeals judges overruled Shakir’s argument, saying Noreen’s trial counsel hadn’t challenged this delay in the trial court, and therefore could not be taken up on appeal.

Shakir attempted to argue that the trial court did not have jurisdiction over Noreen’s case, citing a 1991 decision by Pakistan’s Federal Shariat Court that blasphemy cases, covered by Section 295-C of Pakistan Penal Code, came under Islamic shariah law. Referring to the landmark judgement he quoted the following words from the judgement:

“The contention raised is that any disrespect or use of derogatory remarks etc. in respect of the Holy Prophet comes within the purview of hadd (losely translated as ‘Islamic law’) and the punishment of death provided in the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah cannot be altered.”

He said witnesses in Noreen’s case should have had been tried under the special Islamic law of evidence, known as Tazkiya-tul-Shahood and the witnesses must meet the Islamic criterion of piety and religious observance.

If that were true, responded appeals judge Anwal-ul-Haq, the entire trial of Noreen should be declared unlawful. The judges then studied the Shariat Court’s ruling, but did not declare any finding.

Following the hours of argument, and without further deliberation, the judges announced “the appeal is hereby rejected,” which prompted jubilation among the lawyers representing the prosecution and Salaam, the original complainant.

After the hearing, Shakir told World Watch Monitor the court should have given weight to the serious flaws in the judgment and what he called the “biased mindset” of the trial court. He said with the passing of time it had become difficult for higher court judges to dispense justice, which, he said, “is increasingly in the hands of the extremists.”

Though Noreen has been held in prison for the past five years, safety has been a serious issue for her. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, and their three children live in hiding in another city. In December 2010, a prominent Islamic cleric in Pakistan offered half a million Pakistani rupees (roughly US $5,000) for anyone who could kill Noreen. Since then, security around her has been increased in prison.

Masih told World Watch Monitor he’s hopeful the Supreme Court will provide justice to Noreen and that she will be released soon.

Pakistan’s judges have occasionally faced the wrath of countrymen upset with their decisions concerning blasphemy. Judge Pervez Ali Shah, who gave the death penalty to the guard who killed Salmaan Taseer, fled Pakistan after issuing his decision. Justice Arif Bhatti, who had acquitted two Christians in a 1995 blasphemy case, was killed in his office in 1997.

In its most recent annual report, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, and advisory body to Congress, urged the government of Pakistan to “place a moratorium on the use of the blasphemy law until it is reformed or repealed” and to unconditionally pardon and release those accused under that law. The law is widely popular, however, putting pressure on the government, including the courts, to preserve it.

 

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Pakistan court grants bail to suspect in murder of government minister

A man charged with killing Pakistan’s former Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, in March 2011 has been released on bail of about $10,000 by a Pakistani court.

Umar Abdullah was released July 11 after being arrested in September 2013. He has been accused of having ties with Al-Qaeda and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, an offshoot of the Afghanistan Taliban.

Bhatti was killed leaving his Islamabad home when gunmen pelted his car with bullets, hitting him several times. Before leaving the scene, the assassins scattered leaflets that called him a ‘Christian infidel,’ and stated he was killed for heading a committee set up to review Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which forbid insulting Islam.

 

 The English translation of the March 2011 leaflet, originally written in Urdu, and signed by the Fidayeen [suicide squad] of Muhammad of the Organization of Al-Qaeda and Tehreek-e-Taliban Punjab:
There is only death penalty for blaspheming the Prophet in Islamic sharia
By Allah, now either you will live or we will live in this world. You have become so bold that you in Allah’s contrast legislate in favor of blasphemers of the Prophet [Mohammed]. And you made an accursed kaffir [unbeliever] Christian, Shahbaz Bhatti, to head this committee. This is an exemplary end of this accursed man. And now mujahideen with the help and triumph of Allah will send you one by one to hell. If God be willing!!! O you crusade legions, our war will continue with you until the Prophet’s and Allah’s religion prevail and kaffir [unbeliever] and diabolic system get destroyed or we reach the destiny of martyrdom…

 

 

The Taliban offshoot eventually took responsibility for killing Bhatti. His driver, Gul Sher, survived and told police there were three or four assailants and at least one of them opened fire. Sher sought protection, but when this did not happen, he fled abroad and sought asylum.

 

The time following the murder has been marked by lax investigations, a series of freed suspects and lack of coordination across law enforcement organizations, which have raised suspicions of a possible cover-up.

Zia-ul-Rehman was arrested in connection with Bhatti’s murder, but acquitted in May 2012 due to lack of evidence. In August 2013 Hammad Adil was arrested for an attempted attack on a Shiite mosque and for “planning attacks on some key installations in Islamabad.”

The police also recovered a vehicle from his residence laden with 120 kilograms of explosives. During investigation Adil confessed that he and Muhammad Tanveer, a Tehreek-e-Taliban Punjab ringleader in Islamabad, had also killed Bhatti with the help of Umar Abdullah.

One suspect confesses to Bhatti’s assassination

Tanveer and Abdullah were arrested for a short period, during which Abdullah confessed to killing a prosecutor, Chaudhry Zulfiqar, who had handled several sensitive cases, including the assassination of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Zulfiqar’s bodyguard had shot Abdullah in the back and paralysed him in that incident; Abdullah was arrested in a private hospital as he was recovering. He had already been granted bail awaiting trial for Zulfiqar’s murder; this second bail means he was able to leave the prison.

Adil told the police that prior to the Minorities’ Minister’s attack they had studied Bhatti’s movements for a few days. Bhatti died as he left his mother’s home, when his bodyguard was absent.

Rana Abdul Hameed, a lawyer in Bhatti’s case, told World Watch Monitor that Umer Abdullah was not released on bail on legal merit, but on medical grounds because of the paralysis; He is wheeled to his court appearances on a bed. “If Abdullah recovers, then he would again be arrested while Adil is still detained,” Hameed said.

Hammad Adil and Umer Abdullah filed a petition in the trial court to quash the case against them due to lack of evidence, Hameed said. “About two weeks ago the anti-terrorism court rejected their plea so the trial is going on against them,” he added.

Sikandar Bhatti, the younger brother of Shahbaz Bhatti and the complainant in the case, expressed dissatisfaction over the release on bail of Abdullah.

“If one of the men accused of killing my brother has been released on bail, then how to expect justice in the case?” he said. “The problem is that even judges are afraid of terrorists, especially after the killing of a judge in a suicide attack.”

In April a suicide bomber killed 11 people, including a judge, in Rawalpindi Sessions Court. In 1997 the former Lahore High Court justice, Arif Iqbal Bhatti (no relation) was killed after acquitting two Christians in a blasphemy case. Judge Pervez Ali Shah, who convicted Mumtaz Qadri for killing Governor Salmaan Taseer, fled Pakistan in October 2011. Taseer had been killed after calling the blasphemy laws “black laws” and for supporting Aasiya Bibi, a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy in November 2011.

Lawyer Hameed said terrorists also have threatened him, witnesses and Bhatti’s brothers to deter them from pursuing the case. He said an application was submitted to the trial judge to either transfer the case to Lahore or Faisalabad where they all live so they can arrange for their own security, or to provide security if the trial has to be conducted in Islamabad. The application for security was submitted “after death threats on the phone and by letter, and at best the trial judge ordered the Islamabad Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) to provide security to us…The CCPO has not even bothered to contact us, let alone provide us security. We do want justice, but not at the cost of lives of our family members,” he said.

In February, another brother of Shahbaz, Paul Bhattih, who returned to Pakistan to run political affairs after Shahbaz’ death, received death threats, after which he went back to Italy, where he now lives for his own safety.

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In Pakistan, Valentines are Exchanged in Secret

Outside the gates of the women-only Kinnaird College in this central Pakistani city, boys shyly approach, bearing roses and small tokens of affection.

The girls, clad in a spectrum of reds, happily accept, even as they peer around nervously to see who is watching.

“Feb. 14 is a very special day for me to celebrate love because it was on this day last year that I met my boyfriend,” said Sania Ehsan, 21, holding a basket full of chocolates and heart-shaped cookies to exchange with her Valentine.

“I baked the cookies myself,” she added proudly, becoming nervous after spotting her boyfriend approaching from across the road.

In a devout Muslim society where adultery is punishable by death and public displays of love are forbidden, the young are increasingly using Valentine’s Day as a form of rebellion — some call it a silent revolution of sorts.

Celebrating on this day is a direct challenge to the rigid Islamic groups that hold sway in the country and who deem such displays as immoral.

“Every year that Feb. 14 is celebrated, it is done so as the Day of Shame,” said Abdul Muqeet, president of Punjab University Jamiat-e-Talaba, the student wing of the conservative Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party. ”All over Pakistan, our organization holds protests, marches and distributes literature telling our youth how they are being manipulated toward this un-Islamic and immoral tradition.”

According to Muqeet, Valentine’s Day has no relevance or place in a Pakistani society; it is only “vulgarity” and a challenge to the sacred system of family as conceived in Islam.

“We cannot allow such acts as they will spoil the present and future generations,” he said.

Despite such sentiments, across Pakistan, roadside stalls sell buckets of red roses and teenagers hang red heart balloons from their scooters. Radio jockeys speak of “love in the air” and bakeries bake special delicacies including cupcakes intended “for your special love.”

“Unofficially, it is celebrated at most universities,” said Rehman Afridi, 23, of Peshawar, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “We as youngsters wait for this day, not only to show love but also to find out which new couples will be created on Valentine’s Day.”

Even in the most conservative Pakistani province of Peshawar, where the morality police terrorize locals into strict obedience to conservative mores, the tradition is catching on among the young.

Here, Valentine’s Day is celebrated like anywhere else in Pakistan — in a hush-hush manner.

“While the mullahs go on with their conspiracy theories associated with Valentine’s Day, nobody is actually listening to them,” said Asam Khan, 23, a student in Peshawar.

“The restaurants and parks in Peshawar are full of couples — I have seen so many couples skip their classes and go to a restaurant or park to celebrate the day,” he added. “And then they come back to university just before classes are over so their families see that they are ‘actually’ coming back from the campus.”

Some say this day is one that brings a fresh sense of freedom, empowerment and inspiration to Pakistan’s young.

In Lahore, several young women sit patiently on the bench in the parking lot of their college, waiting for their valentines. An air of rebellion surrounds them.

“We are free to make our own choices in life — whether that’s personal or professional,” said Amina Shaheed, 24, adamantly. “If I love someone, then my parents need to know that I have every right to be with him. They can’t really stop me, can they?

“Also, I think it is pretty old-fashioned to just think that girls who are in relationships have questionable characters and that they are not good for the society,” she added. “One has to move with the world — you can’t just live in a bubble of your own making.”

Some, meanwhile, use the day for lightheartedness.

One tradition is for men to don red, even though in some parts of the country, such as Peshawar, it is considered “unmanly.”

“Our entire college campus is literally painted in red, with males wearing red even though it is considered girlish,” said Afridi. “I guess there will always be a group of losers like me who somehow always manage to be single when it matters the most, and who make fun of the boys in red — but it’s all in good fun.”

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