Government in Pakistan under Pressure from Islamists Protesting Asia Bibi Acquittal

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Officials facilitate filing of review petition against verdict.

By Our Pakistan Correspondent
 Muslims in Pakistan clamor for Asia Bibi's death sentence to be upheld in 2010. (Pakistan Today)LAHOREPakistan, November 5, 2018 (Morning Star News) – The Pakistani government on Friday (Nov. 2) capitulated to demands of Islamist groups protesting the acquittal of Christian mother Aasiya Noreen, better known as Asia Bibi, by agreeing to allow the possibility of a Supreme Court review of the verdict.

In the agreement between administration officials and leaders of an Islamic extremist group, the government also agreed to prohibit Noreen from leaving the country until the high court decides whether to review the petition.

The government found itself amid hurricane-force pressures as violent protests over the acquittalparalyzed routine life in several cities for three days, raising fears of civil war in a country already on the brink of an economic meltdown.

Soon after a three-judge panel led by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mian Saqib Nisar announced on Wednesday (Oct. 31) the acquittal of Noreen, who has been incarcerated for nearly nine years on fabricated charges of blasphemy, thousands of supporters of the Islamic extremist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) blocked main roads and highways in several Pakistani cities. Some resorted to vandalism and violence to pressure the government against releasing the Christian mother of two children and stepmother to three.

Led by firebrand clerics Khadim Hussain Rizvi and Pir Afzal Qadri, the TLP is a staunch supporter of Pakistan’s widely condemned blasphemy laws and openly justifies violence to safeguard Namoos-e-Risalat, or honor of the prophet (Muhammad).

Schools were closed, universities postponed exams, flights got delayed and trains were forced to change their routes as the government shut down cellular and Internet networks in several cities to thwart the protests.

Noreen’s lawyer, Saiful Malook, told Morning Star News that he was hopeful that the review petition would not be accepted by the court.

“The judgment given by the three-judge panel has already elaborated upon these points in detail,” he said. “However, if the court does decide to take up the review petition, usually within 30 days, and forms a new bench to hear the case, I am ready to defend it again.”

Malook said that Noreen was still in jail as required by the legal process.

“Filing of the review petition would not hinder Bibi’s release from prison,” he said. “However, if the government does [again] include her name in the Exit Control List [the no-fly list, for the duration of a possible review process], then we might have a security issue on our hands.”

He politely refused to comment on how the family was planning to deal with security threats after she is set free.

“It would not be wise to comment on this matter in these circumstances,” he said. “It’s not just Bibi’s life that’s at risk here!”

Response to Protests
Prime Minister Imran Khan had warned TLP protestors not to incite people to violence or else the state would protect the life and property of its citizens.

Declaring that those inciting people against the judiciary and army just to enlarge their vote bank were not serving the cause of Islam, the premier had warned TLP and other Islamist groups to desist from confronting the state.

The TLP protestors, however, pressed on, disregarding the warning and staging new protests after Friday prayers, bringing daily life to a standstill.

As the government deployed thousands of police and paramilitary personnel and put the army on standby in the worst affected cities in Punjab and Sindh provinces, it continued to negotiate with the protest leaders in a bid to defuse the situation “peacefully.”

The government also chose to ignore the TLP leaders’ blatant threats of murdering the Supreme Court judges and inciting a rebellion against the army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, as the agreement it reached with the TLP leaders makes no mention of withdrawal of the fatwas (edicts) the extremist clerics had issued sanctioning the killing of “all those who are responsible for freeing Bibi.”

The Agreement
According to the agreement signed between two government ministers and leaders of the TLP, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government assured protestors that it will not oppose a review petition filed against the Supreme Court’s verdict in Noreen’s appeal.

To keep Noreen from leaving the country, the government agreed to place her name on the Exit Control List (ECL), according to the agreement with the TLP.

The government also promised to take appropriate legal action to redress any deaths that may have occurred during the protests and to release all people picked up in connection with vandalism and violence during the protests starting Oct. 30.

The TLP, in turn, apologized if it “hurt the sentiments or inconvenienced anyone without reason.”

The agreement was signed by Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Noorul Haq Qadri and Punjab Law Minister Raja Basharat on behalf of the government, and by Pir Afzal Qadri and Muhammad Waheed Noor of the TLP.

Noorul Haz Qadri told Morning Star News that the government had decided to accept the TLP’s demands “in the larger interest of the country.”

“The entire country has been paralyzed due to the protests,” he said. “Using force on protestors was the last option, as any such move would have had catastrophic consequences and pushed Pakistan further into chaos. Even Prime Minister Imran Khan wanted to resolve this matter through talks.”

Administration officials held more than eight meetings with TLP leaders in 48 hours, convincing them that neither the government nor the Pakistan Army was connected with Noreen’s case, he said.

“We told them that the issue was legal, and it should be dealt in a legal matter in court rather than on roads,” Qadri said. “They have the constitutional right to appeal the verdict, which they have used, and now it is again up to the court to consider it.”

The minister declined to comment when asked what guarantees the government had received from TLP leaders in the event that the Supreme Court rejects the review petition.

“We stand with the Supreme Court and will support whatever decision the court makes in this case,” he said. “We also expect the Labbaik [TLP] leaders to honor the court’s verdict and desist from challenging it on the roads again. Pakistan cannot afford religious disharmony at this crucial juncture, therefore it is in the best interest of all Pakistanis to respect the rule of law and refrain from actions that harm the country, both domestically and internationally.”

Perturbed Judge
Perturbed by the violence perpetrated by TLP and other religio-political parties over the verdict, Chief Justice Nisar on Thursday (Nov. 1) asked how the court could punish someone if the charges against them could not be proven.

“I and the bench [members] are all lovers of the Prophet (peace be upon him),” Nisar commented during the hearing of a separate case.

His comments came after TLP leaders termed the chief justice “liable to be killed.”

“We are ready to sacrifice ourselves for the prophet’s honor,” he said. “But we are not judges only for Muslims. If there is no proof against someone, how can we punish them?”

He noted that the bench began their judgment with the first kalma, or proclamation of faith in Muhammad.

“We do not love the prophet any less than anyone else,” he said. “We have judges on our bench who are always reciting the Durood Sharif [praises for Muhammad]. Our faith is incomplete without our faith in our prophet.”

Nisar said that the judgment had also been written in Urdu, so that ordinary citizens could read and understand it.

“I have not seen God, but I have learned to recognize Him through the prophet’s guidance,” he said. “Will every person now have to provide proof of their faith?”

Review Petition Filed
On Thursday (Nov. 1), the complainant in the case, Qari Muhammad Salaam, filed a review petition through his counsel, Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, against the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Noreen’s conviction.

The petitioner also sought placement of Noreen’s name on the no-fly list till the judgment is reviewed.

The review petition urges the top court to reconsider its decision, arguing that Noreen’s acquittal did not meet the standards of jurisprudence as well as Islamic provisions and the “normal principle of justice with reference to application in blasphemy laws.”

It also asked whether the Supreme Court was necessarily bound to take into consideration “the nature of the case” and consider all the technical faults in it, especially the inordinate delay in the filing of the First Information Report (FIR) and the defective investigation – and let them become “a hurdle in the dispensation of justice, in view of the application of blasphemy laws read with judgments of the superior courts.”

The petition further asked that a member of the Appellate Shariat (Islamic law) Court be included in the bench that reviews the judgment, “because this matter needs detailed in-depth consideration, and due to the peculiar circumstances of the case as well as Application of Section 295-C in its … letter and spirit.”

It also challenged the Supreme Court’s dismissal of the alleged “confession” that Noreen was forced to make by the people of her village and argued that the justices should have applied Qanoon-e-Shahadat (the Law of Evidence) differently in this case.

The three-judge bench headed by Nisar and including Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel last week announced it had acquitted Noreen on her appeal challenging the Lahore High Court’s October 2014 verdict upholding a trial court’s November 2010 decision sentencing her to death for allegedly committing blasphemy in 2009.

Authored by Nisar, the judgment states: “The appeal is allowed. She [Bibi] has been acquitted. The judgment of high court as well as trial court is reversed. Her conviction is set aside, and she is to be relieved forthwith if not required in other charges.”

False Case
Noreen was the first Christian woman sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and only the second (after Ayub Masih, released in 2002) whose blasphemy case has gone up to the Supreme Court and won release.

The allegations against Noreen were that she made three “defamatory and sarcastic” statements about Muhammad on June 14, 2009 during an argument with three Muslim women while the four of them were picking Falsa berries in a field in Sheikhupura District in Punjab.

Noreen was asked to fetch water, but the Muslim women objected, saying that as a non-Muslim she was unfit to touch the water bowl. The women later went to a local cleric and accused her of blasphemy against Muhammad.

The prosecution had claimed that Noreen “admitted” making the blasphemous statements at a “public gathering” on June 19, 2009 “while asking for forgiveness.”

A trial court convicted her for blasphemy in November 2010 and sentenced her to death. A month later, Islamist cleric Maulana Yousaf Qureshi put a $5,000 bounty on her head while the Pakistani state failed to charge him.

The Lahore High Court (LHC) upheld Bibi’s conviction and confirmed her death sentence in October 2014. She then had challenged the LHC verdict in the Supreme Court, which stayed her execution in July 2015 and admitted her appeal for hearing.

The top court had first taken up the appeal in October 2016 but had to adjourn the matter without hearing after one of the judges recused himself from the Supreme Court bench. Two years later, the appeal was heard in October, and the Nisar-led bench initially reserved its verdict before announcing it on Oct. 31.

In January 2011, former Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, who spoke out in support of Noreen, was gunned down in broad daylight in Islamabad. His assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was executed in 2016 after the court found him guilty of murder. He was hanged in February 2016. The TLP was founded by those finding Qadri’s hanging unjustified.

Only two months after Taseer’s killing, the only Christian minister in the federal cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also gunned down by members of Tehreek-e-Taliban for supporting Noreen and for advocating that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws be amended.

Noreen’s case sparked widespread outrage in the international community over the country’s notorious blasphemy laws, but all appeals to abolish the legislation have fallen on deaf ears.

Pakistan is ranked fifth on Christian support group Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

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