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February 7, 2019

When the system fails


February 7, 2019

While many of us have essentially forgotten about Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman and mother of five children who was arrested and jailed on blasphemy charges in 2009, others await news of her final fate. The question for now is whether she will be able to safely make it out of the country and join her children, who are already believed to be in Canada.

Although Aasia Bibi was acquitted by the Supreme Court at the end of October 2018, she has since been held at a ‘safe’ location that has remained undisclosed. Freedom has yet to come. A review petition against her acquittal was dismissed by a three-member bench of the Supreme Court in January, which also declared that she is free to move as she pleases. The problem is that she cannot choose in this matter. The risk presented to her by extremists, with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan still threatening to kill her, has meant the government of Pakistan has hesitated to play any part in sending her out of Pakistan. It is understood that there is a plan to do so.

Essentially, Aasia Bibi has lost almost a decade of her life when she was held behind bars in a hostile environment. She has faced the threat of death and been separated from her children, who have grown up in her absence. It is easy to blame extremist forces for this. But we should remember that the PPP government was in power when Aasia Bibi was jailed in 2009 and blasphemy charges, which legal experts believe are based on the flimsiest of grounds, were upheld against her.

The PPP government did not make any organised effort to secure any relief for Aasia from circumstances brought about by a petty squabble with fellow farm workers in her village in Sheikhupura. That squabble was instigated by extremist clerics. From the PPP, among the few that spoke up was the then Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer who made an effort to secure justice for Aasia Bibi. Taseer had met her in late 2010 and sought a pardon from the then president Asif Ali Zardari for Aasia Bibi, who he had suggested wasn’t guilty.

For this, Taseer was gunned down by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, in Islamabad in January 2011. Mumtaz Qadri was consequently hanged in 2016 despite the fact that he was garlanded by lawyers and other onlookers when he appeared in court after killing Taseer. Thousands of people attended the funeral procession for a man who, in the eyes of some, is a hero.

The PML-N government, which took over in 2013, also didn’t come to Aasia Bibi’s rescue. Throughout its tenure, it did nothing to offer any support to her or to tackle the country’s blasphemy law, which has been misused repeatedly to settle petty scores and has resulted in hundreds of people being put behind bars. It is easy to blame extremist elements, including the TLP and other groups, for the entire problem. But we should also remember that democratically-elected governments have done little to resolve the matter. This is why Aasia Bibi remained in jail for such a long time.

There is also the question of people’s mindset. Although candlelight vigils and protests have been held for Aasia Bibi by civil-society activists and Christian groups, there are also many in the country who insist that Qadri did the right by killing Taseer. The logic behind killing a man who had only spoken out against an unjust law and in defence of a woman whose voice wasn’t being heard has been debated only within specific circles. Many are too scared to take on the issue or highlight it in any manner. Certainly, the number of people who have attended marches and rallies held in support of Aasia Bibi appear to be relatively less than those who turned up Qadri’s funeral.

Despite the fact that the problems created by extremist elements exist and have become a major threat to our country, we must also ask why our democratic forces are silent and apparently helpless. One reason for this is that the sort of power wielded by orthodox elements and the individuals or groups that back them suggests that political parties feel unsafe in taking any action for which they know they will be attacked.

The sit-in that pitched the PML-N government against the TLP in Islamabad in November 2017 is just one example of this. Things did not go well for the government. Every government worries that any other standoff involving extremist elements will not go well either. This problem has existed for a very long time in Pakistan. But it has grown dramatically over the past two decades or so as more and more orthodox forces have appeared on the scene and added to the political and social storm that rages in the country.

The TLP is the latest example of these groups. The fact that Khadim Rizvi and other key TLP leaders have been arrested doesn’t mean that extremism has waned. It continues to exist in the minds of people and in the many messages and posts shared over social media that promote orthodox thinking in various forms.

These messages undoubtedly have an impact and leave behind an impression – whether faint or strong – in the hearts of all those who read them. The threats sometimes woven into these messages only add to this impression. For now, there has been very limited effort to remove sectarian or extremist hatred from the internet. The laws against hate speech that are in place in the country are limited in their application.

We have seen that our democratic forces do not feel strong enough to take on hardline elements on their own. It is essential then that they combine forces. The mainstream parties that do – or should – stand for the constitution of Pakistan and the rights of its people must join hands to ensure the security and safety of every law-abiding citizen in the country. The courts have ruled that Aasia Bibi broke no law. She has suffered for a very long time, as has her family. What is important is not only that she should be granted a safe future, but that incidents such as those which placed her in a prison cell for so many years are not repeated. This can happen only if there is a joint drive against mindsets that don’t allow us to ensure fair play.

We have repeatedly seen how easily people can be persuaded to believe a particular version of events. Major political parties must make more of an effort to ensure that the other side of the picture is also represented. Only then will people be able to gain greater clarity and consider the manner in which we think and what we believe in.

It is a sad reflection on our present-day scenario that Aasia Bibi had to struggle to gain something that resembles justice. The 10 years that she has lost will, of course, never be restored. But others must be saved from facing a similar sequence of events in the future.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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