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As Asia Bibi finds refuge in Canada, a look at the Pakistani laws that made her life hell

Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi was sentenced to death in 2010 for blasphemy. The Supreme Court overturned it in 2018, but she still faced death threats.

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New Delhi: Asia Noreen, a Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years in prison after being convicted under the country’s blasphemy laws, has left the country and reached Canada on 8 May to join her family. Popularly known as Asia Bibi, her conviction was overturned last year by Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

Asia was convicted in 2010, after she was accused of insulting Prophet Muhammad during a quarrel with her neighbours. For the next eight years, Asia suffered personal indignities, polarised Pakistan and started a vigorous debate about the existence, application, and abuse of the country’s blasphemy laws.

ThePrint takes a look at the state of these laws in Pakistan, and Asia Bibi’s persecution.

The case against Asia Bibi

In 2009, Asia was charged under Section 295C of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. This followed an altercation between Asia and other women working in the fields at Ittanwala, near Lahore.

Reports said after a long day’s work, Asia took a cup of water from a bucket, and the other woman found this unacceptable, as this had made the bucket “impure”.

According to the prosecutors, an argument ensued and Asia allegedly abused Prophet Muhammad. Later, she was beaten up by a crowd, during which she reportedly confessed to blasphemy, according to her accusers. The police arrested her right away.

In 2010, a trial court at Sheikhupura convicted her of blasphemy and sentenced her to death under Section 295C. The Lahore High Court upheld the decision in 2014. However, an appeal was registered against the verdict in Pakistan’s Supreme Court the same year.

The Supreme Court stayed the death penalty in 2015 for the duration of the trial. Finally, on 31 October 2018, nine years after her arrest, the top court overturned Asia’s conviction.

The judges noted in their judgment: “It is ironical that in the Arabic language the appellant’s name Asia means ‘sinful’, but in the circumstances of the present case she appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘more sinned against than sinning’.”

Also read: Pakistan’s Asia Bibi episode shows injecting extremists into politics is a bad idea

Protests and death threats

But Asia’s troubles did not end there. There were mass demonstrations and protests across Pakistan against the Supreme Court’s judgment, led by the extremist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) — roads were blocked in major cities and the state of Punjab reported destroyed property worth US$1.8 million (26 crore Pakistani rupees).

Death threats were made to Asia and her family. The case received widespread coverage in the international media too, with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leading efforts to ensure her security.

The Imran Khan government formed in August 2018 caved into pressure and struck a deal with the TLP and its leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi: All the arrested protestors were to be released and the government would file a review petition against the Asia acquittal verdict.

The Supreme Court took up the review petition in January this year, where it rejected the petition and upheld Asia’s acquittal. A few months later, Asia has made her way to an undisclosed location in Canada, where her family had already been granted asylum by the Justin Trudeau government.

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws date back to colonial times. In a comprehensive paper, academic and journalist Raza Rumi provides an overview: They were enacted in 1860 and the British justified them from an entirely colonial perspective.

“[T]here is perhaps no country [other than India] in which the government has so much to apprehend from religious excitement among the people,” read Chapter XV of the British-era Indian Penal Code.

These laws provided protections to all religions; for someone to be convicted, their intent had to be proven, and the maximum punishment amounted to one or two years in prison.

After Partition in 1947, Pakistan adopted these laws as they were, and they remained broadly unchanged, until General Zia-ul-Haq came to power in 1977.

Under Zia’s rule, five stringent sections (295B, 295C, 298A, 298B and 298C) were added to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws between 1980 and 1986.

Section 295C, which prohibits people from speaking against Prophet Mohammad, prescribes a mandatory death penalty for the convicted.

Section 298 A sanctions “derogatory remarks against holy personages”, and has been used to persecute Shias. The most damning additions were Section 298 B & C, which essentially prevented the Ahmadiyya community from calling themselves Muslims.

The effect of these additions can be seen in the rise in blasphemy cases. According to a report by Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), between 1957 and 1986, only eight people were accused of blasphemy, whereas between 1987 and 2012, the number of accused went up to 426.

A graver consequence have been the dozens of incidents of lynching following the additions. According to the CRSS, 60 people have been “killed outside the Pakistani justice system” since 1990.

Another 2015 study by the International Court of Justice shows that 80 per cent of blasphemy convictions are eventually overturned. This highlights how these blasphemy laws are predominantly used for the purpose of persecution.

Also read: Pak far-right parties have not got over Asia Bibi verdict yet as another march is in the offing

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