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Victory then defeat for Pakistan’s persecuted

The daughters of Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi pose with an image of their mother while standing outside their residence in Sheikhupura located in Pakistan's Punjab Province November 13, 2010. Standing left to right is Esha, 12, Sidra, 18 and Eshum, 10. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
The daughters of Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi pose with an image of their mother while standing outside their residence in Sheikhupura located in Pakistan's Punjab Province November 13, 2010. Standing left to right is Esha, 12, Sidra, 18 and Eshum, 10. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

In a landmark moment for Pakistan, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy nearly a decade ago has been acquitted by the Supreme Court.

Working on a berry farm, Aasia Bibi, the accused, made the mistake of drinking water from a communal cup on a blazing hot day, a cup shared by Muslim labourers. Insulted by her actions, two Muslim female workers confronted her and a fight broke out. The matter went to a local mosque and, five days later, a police report was filed accusing Aasia of insulting the Prophet Mohammed. She was subsequently imprisoned and, a year later, was sentenced to death as per the country’s law.

Fast forward to October 2018 and the Supreme Court has acquitted Aasia of all the charges. A bench comprised of three judges – all three Muslims – simply threw out the case against her as it was rife with procedural errors. They concluded that key evidence was purposefully concealed and hinted at collusion between accusers.

It was a triumphant day for human rights and the rights of minorities, of due process and jurisprudence. But things have quickly unravelled.

After a week of road-blocking protests by the religious far-right, Imran Khan’s government has now effectively barred Aasia from leaving the country by putting her on the Exit Control List, even after pledging that the judiciary’s decision be respected.

Khan's religious affairs minister and the anti-blasphemy activist group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) came to an agreement to end the protests which caused damages of up to $1.2 billion. The government agreed to allow a court petition hearing against the acquittal.

Just last year, Aasia was nominated by the EU for the Sakharov Prize honouring individuals defending human rights, so why have both the state and international community ignored her plight?

Yet to be released from jail while the court hears an appeal against the judgment, her husband says the family is constantly changing location for their safety. He has also appealed to the US and UK for asylum, and her lawyer has now left the country and is seeking refuge in the Netherlands.

While many of us are still reeling from what transpired after the initial court ruling, the question is simple: did the civilian government and the army – the latter being the key arbiter – calculate that it was not in their interest to stand up to the agitators?

Sadly, the answer is yes. Let’s not put it any other way: the fate of the downtrodden barely registers.

The bigger picture

Last month, Prime Minister Imran Khan went to Saudi Arabia to attend a summit dubbed the ‘Davos in the desert’, ignoring calls to boycott after the murder of a journalist. Khan returned with $6 billion in Saudi aid to help shore up Pakistan’s fledgling economy. Then, as the protests were growing after the Aasia verdict, Khan, who is also the interior minister, was received in Beijing, where he went to discuss further financial assistance. Pakistan is an important part of China’s larger-than-life Belt and Road Initiative. Very soon, Islamabad will knock on the IMF’s doors to demand its 13th bailout since 1980s, to the tune of $12 billion.

The unfortunate fact is the economic malaise of the sixth most populous country is a bigger concern than the misfortune that’s befallen on a single citizen. Add to this the detail that neither China nor Saudi Arabia will ever push their ally on inconvenient matters like human rights.

Economic progress is also the mantra adopted by the European Union. The EU has yet to show meaningful opposition to Pakistan’s abysmal human rights record and trade between the two continues under the GSP Plus scheme, a trade agreement which requires Pakistan to ratify 27 different human rights conventions. Islamabad lifted a moratorium on the death penalty in March 2015 that was in place since a few years. Close to a thousand executions have been carried out since.

As for the United States – another long-time patron of Pakistan – it views the country through a security lens. In recent months, Washington has put pressure on its official partner in War on Terror through the Financial Action Task Force, which concerns money laundering and terror financing. While Pakistan is on FATF’s ‘grey list’ and can be put on its ‘black list’ if it fails to comply with FATF’s long list of legitimate demands, the consequences would be economic and political; there’s no indication that Islamabad will be told to improve access to justice for its citizens.

Previously, one could have expected the US government to be at least vocal about a case such as Aasia’s. But that veneer of respect for human rights has long gone under Donald Trump.


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