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November 1, 2018

Justice at last


November 1, 2018

For nine years Aasia Bibi has languished in purgatory, waiting in limbo as her case inched its way through the courts. After years of legal arguments, violent protests and even multiple assassinations, Aasia Bibi is finally a free woman. A three-member bench of the Supreme Court declared her not guilty of blasphemy on grounds of insufficient evidence. In the larger debate about the misuse of blasphemy laws, the street power of violent extremists and the cowardice of too many politicians, this should not be forgotten. One low-income Christian woman was put through so much pain and hardship while her family was forced into hiding and then had to seek asylum in Europe. Even now, though she has been exonerated in a court of law, Aasia Bibi is unlikely to find peace. She has become such a lightning rod for the violent and the intolerant that she will never be safe in Pakistan. The majority opinion in the verdict found many problems with the prosecution’s case while the blistering concurring opinion by Justice Asif Khosa said there was evidence to suggest that her accusers had knowingly made a false accusation of blasphemy, and said that the confession that Aasia Bibi was supposed to have made “was nothing short of a concoction”. Justice Khosa also noted the inordinate delay in filing an FIR and discrepancies in the testimony of witnesses.

The Supreme Court judgement may finally have set Aasia Bibi but it also shows how flawed our justice system is. Whether out of fear, ignorance or a base motive, the lower courts give too much credence to accusations even when all the evidence points to the fact that they are false. There is a dire need to reform the system. Those who deliberately make false accusations of blasphemy need to be prosecuted with the same vigour as those who are accused of the crime. It is dangerous now to even suggest amending the laws but at the very least the existing law has to be applied equally to the accuser and the accused.

Aasia Bibi’s acquittal is also a clear vindication of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, two people who paid with their lives for having the courage to stand up to this travesty of justice. It speaks volumes about the state of the nation that men like them are no longer with us but those inspired by their murderers felt safe to come out in force after the verdict. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan – an extremist group that is directly inspired by Taseer’s killer Mumtaz Qadri – took out protests around the country and once again blocked the Faizabad exchange in Islamabad after the verdict yesterday. Even more shamefully, mainstream politicians like Fazlur Rahman decided to protest the verdict. This strain of hatred and intolerance that has infected our country needs to be dealt with firmly. At least, Prime Minister Imran Khan was admirably forthright in condemning those who believe violence is an appropriate response to a judicial verdict with which they disagree. He also warned the extremist protesters from igniting clashes. Such sentiments were long overdue. To date, the state has shown only cowardice. The appeasement of the TLP the last time it decided to occupy the capital has only emboldened this group. Its leaders can hurl the worst abuses at the judiciary and nothing is done to them. They take over our streets and the police can only watch on helplessly. We saw the impunity with which Khadim Hussain Rizvi and company spewed hate speech against the judiciary, military and government yesterday. Such elements have been coddled for too long. We should no longer tolerate it. How many more Aasia Bibis, Salmaan Taseers and Shahbaz Bhattis do we want before we realise we have been silent too long?

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