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Pakistan's blasphemy law seen as tool of oppression

In a country with countless ethnicities and religious minorities, the 1980s law against insulting Islam is used to settle scores, critics say. The case of a Christian woman sentenced to death has led to renewed calls for its repeal.

December 27, 2010|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • Daughters of Asia Bibi hold an image of their mother at their home in Sheikhupura, in Pakistan's Punjab province. Human rights advocates have urged the president to pardon her and to repeal the blasphemy law under which she was convicted.
Daughters of Asia Bibi hold an image of their mother at their home in Sheikhupura,… (Adrees Latif, Reuters )

Reporting from Nankana Sahib, Pakistan — Muslim cleric Muhammad Salim isn't worried that a court or Pakistan's president might spare a Christian woman from this village who has been sentenced to death on blasphemy charges.

After all, if Asia Bibi, a mother of two, escapes the hangman's noose, he's confident someone else will kill her.

"Any Muslim, if given the chance, would kill such a person," Salim said calmly, seated cross-legged on a straw mat at a mosque here. "You would be rewarded in heaven for it."

Salim isn't the only one calling for vigilante justice. A cleric in Peshawar has offered 500,000 rupees, or $6,000, to anyone who kills Asia Bibi, if her execution doesn't take place. Other hard-line clerics have warned they would mobilize nationwide protests against the government if President Asif Ali Zardari pardoned her.

Asia Bibi's case has exposed deep rifts in Pakistan over the blasphemy law, seen by some as an appropriate measure to defend the tenets of Islam, but viewed by others as a dangerous tool easily abused in a society that is a volatile patchwork of ethnicities, religions and sects.

The nation's Shiite Muslim minority has been victimized by extremist Sunni Muslim groups for years. Members of the smaller Ahmadi sect, viewed by most Pakistanis as traitors to Islam because they revere another prophet in addition to Muhammad, have been frequent victims of suicide bombings, kidnappings and other attacks. Last year, in the central Punjab city of Gojra, a mob of 1,000 Muslims set fire to more than 40 Christian homes, killing seven people.

Asia Bibi's case gained notoriety because it involved capital punishment. There have been other controversial blasphemy cases since. Accused of burning pages from the Koran, Imran Latif was charged with blasphemy in Lahore but then released on bail Nov. 3 after questions arose about the veracity of the charges. Eight days later, two men shot him to death in an attack police believe was linked to the blasphemy case.

This month in the southern city of Hyderabad, a Shiite Muslim doctor was arrested on blasphemy charges after police received a complaint that he had maligned the prophet Muhammad. His crime? He tossed out the business card of a pharmaceutical company representative whose first name, Muhammad, was printed on it. The doctor belongs to the smaller Shiite sect known as Ismailis.

"There's a fundamental lunacy to it," said Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "There is no good spin to put on the blasphemy law. It's used frequently in these preposterous ways, for preposterous reasons."

The law makes it a crime to make any derogatory remarks or insult in any way the prophet Muhammad, the Koran or the Islamic faith. Various subsections of the law carry different penalties, but under the section Asia Bibi was prosecuted, the only sentence is death.

The law dates to the 1980s and the rule of Gen. Zia ul-Haq, who instituted a policy of Islamization to placate hard-line religious parties in exchange for their political support. Since Zia's rule, 974 people have been charged under the law, according to reports in the Pakistani news media.

No one has been put to death for a blasphemy conviction. But at least 32 people awaiting trial or acquitted of blasphemy charges have been slain.

Critics of the law say it can be exploited as a means to settle scores against adversaries or persecute minorities. Human rights advocates say the law is frequently used by Pakistanis embroiled in property disputes or as a tool to bully Christians, Ahmadis or other minorities. Usually, evidence in blasphemy cases is scant, apart from the accounts given by the accusers.

In Asia Bibi's case, her accusers were three Muslim women who worked alongside her picking fruit in a field in the tiny mud-hut hamlet of Ittanwali, in eastern Pakistan. On June 14, 2009, as Asia Bibi and the three women sat under a tree eating lunch, an argument broke out. Asia Bibi had drunk water from the same glass the others had been using, which prompted them to avoid that glass, said Mafia Sattar, one of the women.

Asia Bibi reacted angrily, making several disparaging remarks about the prophet Muhammad and adding that the Koran "is not a book of God, but a book written by you people," Sattar said during an interview at her home in Ittanwali.

That evening, Sattar's sister told cleric Salim's wife what Asia Bibi had said. Five days later, a band of villagers marched to the field, grabbed Asia Bibi, and brought her to Salim. She admitted making blasphemous remarks, Salim said, and later repeated her admission at the Nankana Sahib police station.

But according to a police report, Asia Bibi insisted to investigators that she was innocent. "My God knows that I never used those words," she told police investigator Syed Amin Bukhari. Arrested and imprisoned, Asia Bibi was convicted of blasphemy Nov. 8 and sentenced to death.

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