By Valentin Popescu *
It can happen only in Pakistan. The apex court acquits a 47-year old Christian woman, Noreen Asia better known as Asia Bibi, of blasphemy charge after she had languished on the death row. The prime minister seems to be on the side of the court when he warned those opposing the verdict. But a day later as Imran Khan flies out to China with a begging bowl to pay for debts incurred due to profligacy and bad economics, the state assigns her virtually to the wolves masquerading as protectors of Islam.
When a person is acquitted he or she is expected to return to the safety of the home. Asia could not because it was said that her journey back home would have endangered her life. The state ought to have made arrangements for her safe journey. But a delay, perhaps deliberate, rendered even the pretense of escorting her home irrelevant. The government of Pakistan has decided to put her on what is described as 'exit control list' that would rule out the possibility of Asia finding a safer place to live outside Pakistan.
The danger to her life was loud and clear. Religious fanatics had gone on a rampage the moment the court acquitted her. The violent protests had spread across many towns of the country including the twin towns of Islamabad, the capital, and the garrison town of Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the real masters, the Army. The violent agitation was certainly not the first of its kind in Pakistan but an impression was created that it was a very serious affair amounting to challenging the state authority.
Imran Khan, the ex-playboy-cricketer prime minister, had hoodwinked the world by issuing a 'warning' to the fanatics and their organisations like the Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) over a nation-wide TV broadcast. He implied stern action against them when he asked them not to confront the power of the state.
Nobody expected Imran Khan to go after the religious fanatics; not for nothing is he known as 'Taliban Khan'. It was aimed at shoring up the battered image of Imran Khan and his government that has been quite happy to sup with the likes of TLP.
The hidden script jointly authored by the religious fanatics and the ruling PTI government unfolded with actors reading their lines faithfully. The agitation was abruptly withdrawn and the hoodlums even extended apology for any 'inconvenience' they may have caused to the people during their violent protest.
But the withdrawal of the agitation and the apology came after the rioters and their leaders had struck a Faustian bargain with the government. The Imran Khan government agreed not to oppose a review petition against Asia Bibi's acquittal and also accepted the demand for starting the legal process of blocking her exit from the country. Meanwhile, there was little hope of finding a safe place for her outside the jail.
The government could not have been blind to the fact that Asia's life would be in clear danger if she lived anywhere in Pakistan. There are enough Pakistanis who have been baying for her blood. He husband pleaded the she be given 'asylum' in the West. There are willing hosts outside Pakistan. But she cannot fly out.
The danger to her life was spelt out more starkly when her lawyer, Saif-ul Mulook, left the country soon after the court verdict was announced in favour of his client. Before flying out he asked the government to provide protection to his as well as Asia's family. Lawyers who contest charges of blasphemy and the courts that pronounce verdict in favour of such accused always run the risk of being killed by the mobs.
Admittedly, executions on blasphemy charges have been rather rare in Pakistan, though the charge looms over their head like a sword. But that does not mean that the accused need fear no danger to their life. The enraged mobs, goaded on by religious and political leaders, take over the task of delivering 'instance justice'. The law and order machinery as well as the state turn a blind eye.
The case of a governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who was shot dead by his security guard about a decade ago is well known. The guard could not control his revulsion against Taseer, briefly married to an Indian columnist, because he wanted the blasphemy law to be toned down.
Somewhat surprisingly, the guard was sentenced to death and executed despite threats from the Islamists. But he became a 'martyr' and a hero to a large number of Pakistanis, including lawyers. He is worshipped by thousands of Pakistanis. And his grave near Islamabad has since become a place of 'pilgrimage'.
The slapping of blasphemy charge against Asia Bibi was a sham that is an all too common a way in Pakistan to settle scores. A group of women, including Asia, working on a farm, were angered because her cup had 'touched' water stored in a pot and thus rendered it 'unholy'. They demanded that she immediately convert to Islam to escape punishment. Asia refused and in the process invited blasphemy charge against her.
The court did not think the testimony before it against Asia Bibi was reliable. The court also held that the so-called confession by Bibi--her alleged act of 'blasphemy'- was coercively extracted by a group which had threatened her with dire consequences. The court's observations may or may not help others charged with blasphemy. In Pakistan the 'confessions' in blasphemy cases are always extracted under threats and are supported by 'witnesses' tutored or coerced by the police. Even in India forced 'confessions' are not uncommon.
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