It is a victory for tolerance and rationality in the Islamic, albeit mildly theocratic, Pakistan. This is quite the most significant aspect of last Wednesday’s Supreme Court judgment that after nine years has binned the conviction of Asia Bibi, a Christian and mother of four, in a blasphemy case. In judicial terms, it signifies a rebuff for the Lahore High Court and the trial court.
However, the wave of violence and arson almost across the country over the past three days would suggest that overwhelming religious intolerance, if not fundamentalism, have regretfully greeted the watershed verdict that has aptly been regarded as a “seismic event” by the Pakistan media. With a large section of the populace up in arms against the Supreme Court, Prime Minister Imran Khan has swiftly warned the hardliners not to “confront the state and refrain from vandalism”. Not that the judgment has not referred to Islamic teachings and tradition; these have been underlined by Chief Justice Saqib Nisar as the “basic principle of Islam and a religion that condemns injustice and oppression”.
As it turns out, the apex judiciary has eventually relied on facts and evidence to turn down the earlier conviction that envisaged life imprisonment for having made derogatory remarks against Islam. The remarks, it would be pertinent to recall, were made after neighbours objected to Asia Bibi drinking water from their glass as she “is not a Muslim”. It is revolting to imagine that the line between religion and life’s essential can be so mischievously blurred. She has consistently denied that she had committed blasphemy.
In Pakistan, it remains an issue of subjective reflection, but the administration has tacitly condoned any outrage that it had sparked, most particularly over the past decade. Ironically enough, the prosecution’s submissions went in Asia Bibi’s favour, specifically the fact that there were more than 25 witnesses but only two accusations and that the FIR was registered suspiciously late. In course of the hearing, the prosecution came through as a bundle of contradictions.
In the net, the three-judge Bench observed that “these material contradictions and inconsistent statements of the witnesses… cast further doubts on the coherence of the evidence. Her conviction is set aside.” The judgment must rank as a seminal document of reference in a blasphemy case. The judiciary has upheld the principles of justice in a case that has outraged Christians the world over, pre-eminently Pope Francis.
It has been a source of division within the country, principally between the Tehreek-e-Labaik and the Human Rights Commision of Pakistan. Those who had sought to help her have been done to death, notably Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, who was shot dead in 2007 by his police guard Mumtaz Qadri. Taseer had offended hardliners for having met Bibi and for handing over her mercy petition to the then President, Asif Ali Zardari. Dozens of Pakistanis have over the past decade been sentenced to death for blasphemy. It is fervently to be hoped that the verdict will force Pakistanis to introspect.