Lawyer Saiful Mulook, who successfully overturned Asia Bibi’s conviction on blasphemy charges, has been forced to flee to the Netherlands following widespread protests after last week’s Supreme Court verdict. Mulook expressed his desire to remain in the Netherlands at a press conference on Tuesday, and has made an application for asylum. His application has been supported by several parties in the Dutch Parliament, and the government as a whole has condemned the threat to his life. The lawyer stated on Tuesday said that he was “put on a plane against [his] wishes.” This despite having previously refused to leave the country without an assurance of his client’s safety out of prison. Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death in 2010, had her sentence quashed by the Pakistani Supreme Court last week and on Thursday was finally freed from detention, although her whereabouts remain a closely guarded secret.
The Supreme Court verdict was initially hailed as a victory for religious freedom and tolerance. “We were all praying for this lady. When we heard she was free, we thought God had answered our prayers,” said Aslam Massih Hassan, an elder of the Jesus Calls Christian Ministry, speaking to the Washington Post. However, within hours of the decision being delivered, Muslim protestors led by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) party took to the streets, blocking roads in major cities such as Rawalpindi and Karachi. Prime Minister Imran Khan caved on his earlier condemnation of the violence following the verdict and negotiated an agreement with the TLP to end the protests. Now, Bibi is prevented from leaving the country until the Supreme Court can be petitioned to review the verdict in light of sharia law, a process which could take several years.
Asia Bibi’s case is reflective of a broader issue in Pakistan and the Middle East in general. Religious Blasphemy laws are often maliciously exploited as a means of settling personal scores against religious minority members. Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said, “It is not permissible that in 2018 someone can risk losing their life for a hypothesis of blasphemy,” but making insulting remarks about the prophet Muhammad carries a mandatory death sentence in Pakistan. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right that should be respected and protected at all costs. The Pakistani government needs to take a stronger stance against religious extremism, and their agreement with the TLP is an affront to the rule of law. While placing Bibi on a no-fly list may be justified from a political standpoint as a measure to end the disruptive protests, it will not go very far to quell the fears of religious minority groups. Christian activists are undoubtedly worried that violence could flare up again at any point, particularly with TLP leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi urging for the assassination of the Supreme Court judges responsible for Bibi’s acquittal.
Bibi, a field worker and mother of four, was accused of blasphemy in 2009 following an argument with Muslim co-workers over sharing water. She was quickly detained, convicted, and served eight years in a Multan prison. Despite the Supreme Court having ruled in some detail that the case against her was based on inadequate and contradictory evidence, ardent protestors demanded that the illiterate mother be killed. In the past two decades, over 60 people have been murdered following blasphemy allegations before they could stand trial, and the Pakistani government seems increasingly powerless to protect persecuted religious minorities.
Prime Minister Khan’s hands are arguably tied over this issue, given how intense the opposition has been to any possibility of granting Asia Bibi freedom. Any measures the government might take to protect Bibi or intervene in protests are incredibly risky, given that the Pakistani military is primarily composed of working-class Muslim men. Because of the potential military uprising that could result from ignoring TLP demands, the government must begin peacefully reconciling its views with the TLP. Greater dialogue and clarity around freedom of religion is required, not just in Pakistan but the Middle East more widely. The Pakistani government must be prepared to grab the bull of zealotry by the horns and work towards reforming blasphemy laws, lest there be more cases like Asia Bibi’s.
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