zaterdag 8 september 2012

Pakistan's Black Law


Asia Bibi is on death row in a Pakistan jail. She has been imprisoned on June 14th 2009. The crime she committed is blasphemy.

Since the case of blasphemy girl Rimsha came out, the spots are back on the equal macabre situation Asia is in. Anne Isabelle Tollet wrote her story. The book is called Blasphème and Mrs Tollet used Asia’s own words and recordings. Asia is in a prison cell in which she can touch both walls just by spreading her arms. There are no sanitary provisions, no windows. And it is hot.
Mrs Tollet was not allowed to visit Asia. She interviewed her through her husband who can visit once a week.
The family is on the run, from shelter to shelter, but they have a small income: the revenues of the book. Ironically Asia’s own daughters will not be able to read it. They don’t go to school due to the continuous running and hiding.

The story goes something like this. Asia, an illiterate Christian mother of five, worked in the fields with other women from the village where she lived. The other women, without exception, worshipped Allah. The work was hard that day. It was warm, 45 Celsius in the shade. Asia got thirsty. She went to the well to drink a little water. Her colleagues told her she could not take water like this. It had become impure because of her. Asia told her co-workers that in her view the prophet Mohammed would not mind them drinking from the same cup. This was a mistake. But she could make up for it. The only thing she had to do was to convert to Islam. ‘I respect Islam and the Prophet Mohammed’, Asia replied, but I believe in Jesus Christ’. These answers signed her death verdict. The women went to the local Mullah and he arranged for Asia to be arrested and thrown in jail. It has been more than three years today.

In Pakistan the Blasphemy Law is the most feared and oppressive legal rule. It is commonly known (and a much used tool) that the accusation of blasphemy alone is enough to ruin an opponents’ life. In theory the law, also known as Black Law, protects all religions, Islam as much as Christianity, Judaism or Hinduism equally. But in this country with a 97% Muslim population, minorities live the harsh life. Christians try to go by unnoticed. They work the lower jobs and live in poor conditions. Of all convicted under the Black Law 50% is Muslim, the other half is of a different religion. Three percent of the population delivers half of the convicted blasphemers.

Asia Bibi is one of them and the only woman on death row. She was supported by the Muslim governor of her region Punjab, Mr. Salman Taseer, and by the Minister of Minorities, Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti. Both leaders have been brutally killed because of their public support for Asia and for questioning the Blasphemy law.
Islamic fundamentalists threaten to throw the country in chaos, should the government try to change this draconic version of both the Shariah Law and its’ previous European sibling implemented by the Spanish Inquisition. Most common Pakistani seem to endure this sword of Damocles submissively.

In August 2012 a young Christian girl named Rimsha Masih was arrested for burning pages of the Qur’an. Charges: Blasphemy. The girl was no older then fourteen years. She was as innocent as a flower in springtime, due to her young age and alleged suffering of Down’s syndrome. Illiterate and poor Rimsha lived in a run-down shack in one of Islamabad’s slums. Her arrest led to worldwide protests. Especially when it came out that three witnesses had seen how the local Mullah, a man called Chishti, tore some pages out of a Qur’an and placed them with the ashes that were the proof of Rimsha’s blasphemy.

Rimsha stayed in a heavily guarded prison for more then three weeks before the judge granted her bail. This is the same prison, where the murderer of Mr. Taseer is being held. That man, by the way, is widely praised for his crime: ‘killing a blasphemer’.

In Rimsha’s story a rejected lover, a greedy landowner and powerplay by a little Mullah added up to the events that made the girl victim to the Black Law. She was an easy puppet, at least so it seemed. Her allegedly blasphemous act led to the Christians fleeing the neighbourhood, making room for more worshippers in the local Mosque. The international row as well as protesting Pakistani civilians saved Rimsha from rotting in a cell for many years.

Moreover, Rimsha has become the first person able to bail out under the Black Law. That is the good news, setting a precedent for other courts.
But, the bail is 1 million Pakistani rupees ($ 10.500) an enormous amount of money for a girl from the slums. An awkward decision, the bail sum is twice the price that fundamentalists put on the head of Asia. Extremists apparently are afraid the Pakistani authorities will not execute the death verdict. The local Mullah Qari Mohammed Salim reacted to BBC News: ‘If the law punishes somebody for blasphemy, and that person is pardoned, then we will take the law in our hands’.

As unlikely as it is for Asia to regain her freedom, it is for Rimsha.
Even if her bail is set and she is let out of prison. Apart from the police investigation that goes on, and can flip like a coin from one side to the other, she risks being violated, even killed, by a vigilante group or a silent aggressor, like other accused blasphemers have been before. Her lawyer claims she will need an armoured vehicle and bodyguards to protect her.

One young girl, one forty-four year old mother and many others suffer under the Black Law that has Pakistan in its’ grip. Politicians are afraid to tackle it. Judges and lawyers flee the country after defending its’ victims.
Pakistan seems to be in deadlock, but at least there is some movement and discussion over the Black Law. Muslim leaders are open for a change, a small change, but a change: Accusers of blasphemy that come up with false allegations will be judged under the same law. This is what happens today to the Mullah who allegedly framed Rimsha.

This minor change may lead to less false accusations after personal disputes and vendetta’s and at least some sort of dialogue on the Black Law starts, but it is no way near a real solution for the Pakistani civil society.

Photo of Asia Bibi, credits: UCA News

This article is among others based on:
BBC News - Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi 'has price on her head'.pdf

More on Rimsha on this blog (in Dutch)





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