Imagine a life in a solitary confinement, spending years in a dark dungeon, living with ceaseless agony, torture, uncertainty.
You are isolated from your family and friends. You receive threats not only from the outside world but also from those who are supposed to safeguard you. In Pakistan, for a blasphemy accused, fears are countless and the ones who police you can also be a threat to your life.
These are the traumas for Aasia Bibi, 45, an impoverished mother of five, who never knew what life was going to throw at her after having a heated argument in June 2009, which culminated in a death sentence due to Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.
Last month the Pakistan courts announced another appeal date for 27 May 2014, after four previous appeal hearings were adjourned due to the mounting pressure from extremist and fundamentalist groups.
The efficiency of any democratic state rests in the institutions that exist to provide unbiased and impartial services to its citizens regardless of their background. Ironically, Pakistan courts succumb to the pressure to provide justice to those accused of blasphemy. Most blasphemy accused continue to battle for their lives, waiting for appeals in courts for years upon years; some are either put to death while in police custody with the official cause being ‘bad health’ or found ‘mysteriously dead’. Even worse, their predators sometimes march into their prison cell and kill them while the guards turn a blind eye.
Despite the international calls for a pardon for Aasia Bibi, the Pakistan Government has not moved a muscle or made any suggestion to end the misery facing this poor mother whilst her life hangs in the balance. Hence the chronology of persecution for Aasia Bibi continues in many shapes and forms to this day.
Human rights groups and advocacy organisations worldwide have been campaigning for the release of Aasia Bibi, staging protests from London to Brussels, from Geneva to New York, petitioning to end the misuse of Pakistan blasphemy laws which are being used to target the members of minorities to settle personal scores and vendettas.
During his recent visit to the UK, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, was urged by his British counterpart David Cameron to ensure protection and promotion of basic human rights. While the UK Government has already demanded transparency, justice, and the rule of law for minorities, the status quo remains for millions who have to battle for their equal, fundamental rights every day. Will justice ever prevail for this vulnerable part of society?
The recent spike in blasphemy cases is a threat to the millions of minority community members in Pakistan. Religious intolerance and escalating extremism has crippled its citizens who, in spite of knowing its horrors, are unable to stop it. According to the most recent report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 14 individuals are currently on death row over blasphemy and 19 others are serving life sentences.
Hatred spewed by clerics against blasphemy accused is so radicalising that some individuals take the law into their own hands. The most recent example is that of 65-year-old Khalil Ahmed, a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, who was shot dead on 16 May while in police custody by a school boy.
One cannot help but wonder how a school boy was able to get access to a prison cell, let alone a gun? Sadly the police is often found to be in cahoots with those wishing to ‘teach a lesson’ to the blasphemy accused. They must have aided and abetted the incident by not searching Mr Ahmed’s visitor, or allowing him to carry a weapon. The boy, undoubtedly coerced by others, committed an act of self-administered justice thinking that he is doing a favour to the religious ideology to which he must have been indoctrinated, in a hope to receive praise from the rest of the fold.
There is a shocking culture of putting the murderers on a pedestal, garlanding them and naming a mosque or library after them, lauding their killing as holy. This admiration of the ‘holy murderers’ exacerbates religious intolerance, disunity, and damages any efforts towards peaceful coexistence among people from various faith backgrounds.
This glorification of ‘murderers’ in Pakistan is a breeding ground for fuelling extremism and fundamentalism. Such a societal attitude is a trap for teenage boys who yearn to gain acclaim from others. The young assassin, who has not been named for security reasons, is a product of such culture.
Pakistan’s legal system is far from any recognisable democratic values. It persecutes the weak and the vulnerable segments of the society. These people hope against the hope for justice while facing threats to their security, the uncertainty of which must be terrifying to face.
A local radical cleric has put a price of 500,000 Pakistani Rupees, (£3,700, $5,800) on Aasia Bibi’s head for anyone one who will end her life. In the midst of these security concerns, the poor mother was moved from Lahore jail to Multan women’s jail. In the face of all these challenges, on 27 May, Aasia Bibi will hopefully face the panel of judges headed by judge Anwar-Ul-Haq for the first time to appeal against her death sentence.
The constitution of Pakistan provides equal rights to its entire people. The state has a responsibility to protect its citizens including minorities, and as such has to prevent the misuse of Pakistan blasphemy laws. The need of the hour is to start a rational discourse to promote interfaith harmony and to include peace studies in the national curriculum among the students at grass roots level.
The culture of persecution against minorities must end and the prosecution of those who misuse blasphemy laws has to be its first priority. Only then is there hope that rule of law will prevail and the Pakistan court will exist to provide justice to Aasia Bibi, and those falsely accused of blasphemy.
Shahid Khan is vice-chairperson of Global Minorities Alliance, (www.globalminorities.co.uk) a UK based human rights organisation which fights for the rights of minorities. He tweets @shahidshabaz