Blasphemy in Pakistan: The case of Aasia Bibi

Exclusive access to sealed court transcripts raises serious concerns about the trial of the only woman on death row

Aasia Noreen, more commonly known as Aasia Bibi, is the first woman on Pakistan's death row

This is the first story in a two-part series about blasphemy in Pakistan. Read the second story, about the lynching of a Christian couple, here.

LAHORE, Pakistan — June 19 marks six years since the arrest of Aasia Noreen, also known as Aasia Bibi, the only woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan. In her village of Ittan Wali, in the province of Punjab, it is the season for berries again. In 2009, Aasia (many Christians in Pakistan are known by their first name) was plucking falsa, a kind of berry, in the fields when she got into an argument with a group of women working beside her. They were Muslim, and Aasia, Christian. The women refused to drink water from the cup that Noreen had touched, contending it was unclean. In the heat of the quarrel, they said, Noreen made blasphemous remarks against the Prophet Muhammad, a charge that can lead to the death penalty in Pakistan.

Asma and Mafia, sisters who each go by one name, as some do in parts of Pakistan, were witnesses to the alleged incident. They reported the altercation to the village cleric, Qari Saalam, who filed a police report against Aasia on charges of blasphemy five days later. State vs. Aasia Bibi was heard in a lower court in the nearby city of Nankana Sahib, and in November 2010, Aasia was found guilty and sentenced to death. Now, the former daily wage laborer and mother of two remains in solitary confinement on death row in the women’s jail in the southern Punjab city of Multan.

Her case has drawn widespread criticism, and calls for her release have come from as far away as the Vatican; international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have championed her cause. Aasia’s case is just one of hundreds in Pakistan based on the infamous blasphemy laws, which carry with them a virtually mandatory death sentence or life imprisonment and, activists say, are often used as cover to settle personal disputes, especially with members of religious minority groups.

And now transcripts of her trial, previously sealed and recently obtained by Al Jazeera America, raise further questions about how Aasia’s case was handled by the court. There are numerous and serious inconsistencies in the witness accounts provided by the prosecution; the cleric who brought the case against Aasia wasn’t even present during the alleged incident; and her legal counsel appears to have been incompetent.

The Lahore High Court upheld Aasia’s death sentence, a move that human rights lawyer Asad Jamal believes was gravely in error. He thinks that the high court should have dismissed her case instead. “I think there was an element of social prejudice there because the woman is a low-caste, Christian woman. The judge should have considered the social discrimination over religion and caste.”

The exterior of the Aasia Bibi's house in the village of Ittan Wali in Pakistan's Punjab province, Nov. 13, 2010.
Fayyaz Hussain / Reuters / Landov

But in Ittan Wali, there seems to be little sympathy for her plight. “She insulted Islam and the Holy Quran,” says Naseem Akhtar, a college student who heard about the incident from others. “The punishment for blasphemy is the death penalty.” Sitting on a charpoy in the courtyard of her red-brick house, Akhtar discusses the case with complete certainty about where the blame lies. “There had never been any problems between Christians and Muslims living here. It was Aasia who created them.”

Muhammad Imran lives one street away from Aasia’s old house, and he was also out of the village when the argument happened. But he is just as sure as Akhtar that justice has been served. “There is no other way to punish her. She should be hanged to death.” As an afterthought, he makes reference to Aasia’s “bad character.”

Imran and Akhtar’s view of Aasia seems to be shared by other villagers interviewed by Al Jazeera America. None of them witnessed the confrontation in the berry fields. The cleric — who was the plaintiff in the case — was away and could not be reached by telephone. The sisters have since married and left Ittan Wali. Some interviewees appeared hostile on questioning, and this reporter had to leave the area hastily for fear of jeopardizing her safety.

Aasia’s husband, Ashiq Masih, spoke to Al Jazeera America by phone from an undisclosed location; her family fled the village after she was arrested. “We believe in all prophets. We believe in Jesus like we believe in Muhammad. Why would she ever use disrespectful language for Prophet Muhammad?”

In Pakistan, repeating blasphemous remarks can also be construed as blasphemy, so the comments attributed to Noreen are not being repeated here. They can be found in the court documents [transcripts are at the bottom of the page].

On left: Members of the Pakistan Christian Democratic alliance march during a protest in Lahore on Dec. 25, 2010, in support of Aasia Bibi. On right: Pakistani Sunni Muslims protest during a march in Lahore on Nov. 23, 2010 against Aasia Bibi. Aasia has been sentenced to death in Pakistan after being convicted of defaming the Prophet Muhammed.
Arif Ali / AFP / Getty Images (2)

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were inherited from its British colonial rulers. Introduced in 1860, the laws were meant to reduce tensions and prevent riots between Hindu and Muslim communities in undivided India. For more than a century, only seven cases of blasphemy were ever reported. In the 1980s, however, under the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, the laws were expanded and stricter penalties imposed in a controversial period known as “the decade of Islamization.” In the three and a half decades since, more than 1,000 cases of blasphemy have been reported to the police, according to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a human rights advocacy group. While the punishment for blasphemy used to be two years’ imprisonment for blasphemy, the maximum penalty is now death. And the additions to the law apply only to Islam, as opposed to all faiths. There is no definition of what constitutes blasphemy, so the laws are applied broadly and charges can be brought on weak evidence, human rights lawyers say.

Aasia was charged under 295-C, the section of the Pakistan Penal Code that deals with “Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet” and the only one among the blasphemy laws that carries the death penalty. That sentence, or life imprisonment, may be given to “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, or HRCP, condemns the blasphemy laws, arguing that they can be used to settle personal scores and applied very broadly. In addition, charges can be brought on the thinnest of evidence.

Among those jailed on blasphemy charges is Bahauddin Zakariya University professor Junaid Hafeez, for a post written by someone else that he had shared on his personal Facebook page in May 2013. It had allegedly contained disrespectful content about the Prophet Muhammad’s wife. One year later, Rashid Rehman, the lawyer defending Hafeez, was shot dead in Multan. Hafeez remains imprisoned in a Multan jail, while Rehman’s killers remain at large. 

Pakistani Christians lay floral wreaths in front of a portrait of the late Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer in a cathedral in Lahore on Jan. 9, 2011. Taseer was assassinated for advocating for the release of Aasia Bibi.
Arif Ali / AFP / Getty Images

At different times in the country’s history, people have attempted to amend the blasphemy laws, but with no success. In 1998, the bishop of Pakistan’s third-largest city, Faisalabad, tried to repeal the laws over a death sentence handed down to a Christian man, Ayub Masih, for blasphemy. When he failed, Bishop John Joseph committed suicide in front of a court building in nearby Sahiwal, in protest.

Others who have challenged the misuse of these laws or have defended those charged with blasphemy have been shot dead or otherwise silenced. In January 2011, Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer, who had advocated for Aasia’s release, was shot by his own bodyguard in an upscale market in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. The killer, Mumtaz Qadri, received the death penalty. Three months after Taseer’s assassination, Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minorities affairs, who had been commissioned by the federal government to investigate Aasia’s case and review the blasphemy laws, was also assassinated. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, and suspects were arrested for Bhatti’s murder, but no one, so far, has been convicted.

In his investigation, Bhatti had found the case against Aasia to be “baseless,” he had said.

Aasia’s case is currently pending with the Supreme Court. In its verdict upholding her death sentence, the Lahore High Court found the evidence “consistent, coherent and confidence inspiring.”

But a copy of the trial proceedings obtained by Al Jazeera America reveals serious inconsistencies in witness accounts. In his statement to the court, Saalam changed his testimony about how and when he found out about Aasia’s crime three times [see page 13].

In her testimony, Aasia pointed out the close relationships between the three prime witnesses (one of the sisters, Asma, was the student of Saalam’s wife) and said that Mafia and Asma had conspired with him to bring a “false, fabricated and fictitious case” against her.

According to the court documents, Saalam accused Aasia of uttering blasphemous remarks twice, the first time in the berry fields and then five days later, on June 19 — the day of her arrest — in front of a gathering of villagers. But in Aasia’s memoir, dictated to her husband from the confines of her prison cell, she says she was beaten by a mob to the point of losing consciousness and was asked to convert to Islam. When she refused, begging for mercy, the police arrived, “threw me in their van, to cheers from the angry crowd, and a few minutes later I was in the police station.”

A police official takes the thumb print of Aasia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, on an affidavit stating her innocence after she was visited by the then-governor of the Punjab Province Salman Taseer (R) at the central jail in Sheikhupura, in Pakistan's Punjab province in November 2010. Taseer was later assassinated.
Asad Karim / Reuters / Landov

Saalam said Aasia confessed to her crime in front of a hundred people, all villagers, but in her statement, Mafia put this number at a thousand, while her sister Asma said 2,000 people were present [see page 18]. Yet another witness, villager Muhammad Afzal, who also said he witnessed the confession, said there were 200 to 250 people [see page 20]. All the prosecution witnesses, including the two sisters, also cite different locations for where this confession took place. Asma told the court that it happened at their neighbor’s house, while Mafia said Aasia confessed at their father’s house [see page 16]. The witness accounts vary in other instances as well. In another example, Asma said that the village gathering lasted 15 minutes, while Afzal said it lasted from “2-2.5 hours.”

But the Nankana Sahib lower court found the witness accounts to be coherent. The court discounted perjury by prosecution witnesses because, “In our society, normally the ladies avoid to indulge in criminal cases ... particularly the parents of unmarried and young girls never allow their daughters to go to police stations.” So, reasoned the judge, if the two sisters did take all these measures, it must have been because “they could not bear the blasphemy.”

In her defense, Aasia said, “My forefathers are living in this village since the creation of Pakistan. ... I am uneducated. ... There is no church in the village so being ignorant of Islamic thought, how can I use such clumsy and derogatory remarks about the beloved Prophet Mohammed.”

While Aasia has denied the charges in court, she admits to having exchanged “hot words” with Asma and Mafia. The court presumed that since the quarrel started when Muslim women refused to drink water from the hands of a Christian, the exchange must have been blasphemous. 

Aasia’s lawyer in the trial, Muhammad Nazim Shehzad, does not appear to have challenged the inconsistent testimonies of prosecution witnesses. What complicates the question of competent legal counsel, says Jamal, is that there are few lawyers willing to fight blasphemy cases: “Threats are so high that no one is willing to defend a blasphemy accused, whereas there would be a 100 people willing to defend a killer of a blasphemy accused.”

She has a new lawyer now, Saiful Malook, who will be representing her before the Supreme Court. Malook says the case could be heard in as little as a few days, or it could take months. He says he has learned to live with the security threats. “We live a life of fear. My family, our days of being happy, feeling free are long gone.”

He says the high court was unjust in upholding Aasia’s sentence on such weak evidence. Malook is in a position to judge; he also served as special prosecutor in the murder case of Taseer.

When Aasia’s case hit the headlines, Ali Dayan Hasan was the Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch, or HRW. He fought for her to be pardoned, he says, and was in confidential talks with senior government officials as early as November 2010, when Aasia was first sentenced. He was given to understand that then-President Asif Ali Zardari would pardon her and she would be sent out of the country on the next flight. But before the pardon could be issued, and just three weeks after the lower court gave her the death sentence on November 8, 2010, the Lahore High Court passed an order prohibiting the president from issuing a presidential pardon.

“Nobody had anticipated that any court of the land could ban the president from pardoning her. This was brazenly unconstitutional,” says Hasan. “Aasia’s case is an example of judicial bigotry and institutionalized maliciousness on part of the Lahore High Court.”

At the time, Khawaja Sharif was the chief justice of the Lahore High Court and the person responsible for barring the presidential pardon (though he did not himself hear Aasia’s case). After he retired in December 2010, he defended Qadri, Taseer’s assassin, who had confessed to the crime. Sharif has no doubt that justice has been served in Aasia’s case. “The evidence was concrete and proved in both the lower court and the high court. If there was conflicting evidence, the high court would have set aside the death penalty.” He also disregards the conflicting testimonies, saying only, “A very competent police officer conducted the investigation, and there is no doubt that blasphemous remarks were made.”

Hasan says when Aasia’s case emerged there was hope for change. There was a quiet agreement in Parliament that blasphemy laws had gotten out of hand, he says. Human rights groups had planned to petition for the abolition of blasphemy with the understanding that religious parties would object and ruling party parliamentarian Sherry Rehman would take the middle ground and submit a bill for reform, which she did. “But after the assassinations of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, the government backed down in its efforts and Rehman had to withdraw the bill,” Hasan recalls. 

The blood-stained car of Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti is seen following an attack in Islamabad on March 2, 2011 in which he was killed.
Farooq Naeem / AFP / Getty Images

After this setback, repealing the laws became virtually impossible, says Hasan, and the subject of blasphemy grew more untouchable. Now, Aasia is just one of at least 19 people on death row on charges of blasphemy, according to HRW.

Back in the quiet and picturesque hamlet of Ittan Wali, meanwhile, there are no non-Muslims left. Aasia’s family, who had lived in the village all their lives, went into hiding after her arrest, and their house was taken over by a Muslim family. The only other Christian family in the village left soon after.

Aasia’s husband, Ashiq Masih, is still unsure why the altercation in the berry fields happened at all. “People would have occasional arguments in the village. Arguments would happen over water all the time, but I don’t understand why the villagers falsely accused her. Maybe it was a quarrel I may have had with someone and this was done as revenge. I don’t know.”

In her memoir, Aasia sounds bitter. “I’m guilty only of being presumed guilty. I’m starting to wonder whether being a Christian in Pakistan today is not just a failing, or a mark against you, but actually a crime.” 

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