On October 31, 2018, the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted a Pakistani Christian woman, known as Asia Bibi, of the crime of blasphemy. Asia Bibi was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to death by hanging. Despite the Supreme Court judgment that led to her acquittal, Bibi remains imprisoned. While she may soon be allowed to go free from the jail cell that she has occupied for over eight years, she faces a new type of imprisonment; imprisonment in Pakistan. The government have effectively banned her from leaving.
The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Bibi’s conviction has sparked violent protests led by the popular and influential Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party. What awaits Bibi in Pakistan is almost certain death at the hands of angry mobs who wish to see her hang.
In an effort to quell these violent protests, the Pakistani government reached an agreement whereby it will impose a travel ban upon Bibi, effectively preventing her from leaving Pakistan and finding a safe haven. In exchange, the TLP will call for an end to the violent protests. As part of the agreement, the Pakistani government has agreed that it will not object to an appeal against Bibi’s release.
So why do the protesters crave the blood of Asia Bibi?
Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman, was convicted and sentenced to death by a Pakistani Court in November 2010. The facts of the case have always been subject to fierce debate. Yet, reported inconsistencies in witness testimonies and fragmented evidence did not prevent the court from securing Bibi’s conviction and from passing the death sentence. In 2014, the Lahore High Court upheld her death sentence. Nonetheless, the execution was stayed in July 2015, when the Pakistani Supreme Court agreed to hear her appeal. It was listed to take place during October 2016. Unfortunately, the appeal had to be adjourned after one of the three judges due to hear the case, Justice Iqbal Hameed-ur-Rehman, recused himself quoting a conflict of interests. Two years later, on October 31, 2018, the Supreme Court handed down the judgement acquitting Bibi. The judgment indicated that the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.
The decision of Pakistan’s highest court appears to matter little to the protesters. They appear to have little respect for law and legal procedure.
It is clear that forcing Bibi to stay in Pakistan amounts to the imposition of a death sentence, what changes is that the execution will most likely come at the hands of an angry mob, not under the control of the justice system. This prediction is not far removed from reality, protesters are already calling for Bibi to be hanged.
Pakistan has a very long history of mobs exercising their own justice for alleged blasphemy or other related offences. For example, the BBC reported that a Christian couple in Kot Radha Kishan were beaten to death and burnt by a mob for allegedly desecrating the Quran. Reportedly, their legs were broken prior to burning so that they would not be able to escape the fire. The BBC also reported on the case of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian Pakistan Minorities Minister, who was killed in an ambush for attempting to reform the blasphemy law.
The violence is not isolated to those who commit the spurious offence of blasphemy either. Take the example of Shahbaz Gormani for instance. A lawyer defending Junaid Hafeez, a university lecturer accused of blasphemy. His house was raided by gunmen on motorcycles who warned him to withdraw from the case. Shahbaz Gormani had taken over the case after Hafeez’ first lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was killed.
Reports of similar cases are common. The Pakistani government must be fully aware of the high-level risks that face Bibi in Pakistan.
Fearing for the safety and life of his wife, Ashiq Masih, Bibi’s husband, recently called upon President Donald Trump, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, and the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in a plea for help. The Pakistani government must now decide whether they are able to guarantee peace and stability in Pakistan. If the Pakistani government is not able to make such guarantees, Bibi should be allowed to seek a safe haven elsewhere.