The Pakistani lawyer putting his life on the line
‘In Pakistan, blasphemy is a crime punishable by death. To defend anyone accused of it – especially if they are part of the very poor Christian minority – is to risk a death sentence of one’s own, by mob rule,’ says Saif ul-Malook, the human rights lawyer who represented Asia Bibi – a Christian labourer who stood accused of blasphemy – in the country’s supreme court.
In June 2009, Asia, a mother of five, headed towards the fields surrounding her village of Ittanwala, around 40 miles south-east of Lahore. There, along with several other village women, she would work all day under the blistering sun, gathering fruit to sell at the market.
It was thirsty work. After several hours, they stopped for a break and Asia was told by her Muslim co-workers to go and fetch water. Returning from the well, Asia took a sip from the water pot she was carrying before handing it to the other women.
A fight broke out, with the Muslim women refusing to drink from the same pot as Asia, who, as a Christian, was considered to be impure and inferior.
Later that week, an angry mob – including members of the police force and the local Imam – broke into Asia’s house, dragged her into the street and violently assaulted her.
She was arrested and charged with blasphemy for defaming the Prophet Muhammad. With no legal representation, Asia would spend the next nine years on death row, in solitary confinement.
Asia’s case came to the world’s attention in 2010, when a prominent politician, Salman Taseer, appealed to the government for her release and vowed to reform the blasphemy law. A few weeks later, he was murdered by his own security guard, who shot him 27 times at point blank range in the middle of a busy market square.
Soon after, in 2011, Pakistan’s Minorities Minister Shabaz Bhatti, a fellow Christian, spoke out in defense of Asia. He was assassinated en route to work, hit by a hail if bullets as he sat in his car.
When Lahore-based lawyer Saif-ul-Malook, heard of Bibi’s plight, he took on her case. The furore this caused caught the attention of global media and, suddenly, he was thrust into the limelight.
Asia’s acquittal in 2018 caused rioting and mass protests across the country, and both she and Malook were subject to countless credible death threats.
For three days and nights, protesters rioted in an attempt to get the Supreme Court and government to reconsider.
Main roads were blocked, petrol bombs were thrown, images of Prime Minister Imran Khan were set alight in the streets. Schools, offices and shops pulled their shutters down, as protesters raged through the streets, calling for everyone involved in the defence to be executed.
In a special televised address to the nation, Prime Minister Imran Khan warned protestors not to ‘clash with the state’. Three days later, the government said it would meet with the organizers of the riots and try to reach some kind of a compromise.
‘Prime Minister Imran Khan is a brave and open person, who did not give in to pressure to overturn the ruling granting Asia Bibi her freedom,’ Saif tells me. ‘He does care for the human rights and the minority groups in Pakistan, but these blasphemy laws are open to abuse by people with personal grudges. The laws are three decades old but they will never change because of religious fervor amongst the voting public.’
‘This is my country. I’ve spent my whole life defending the poor and helpless here. Why should I stop?’ he asks.
‘Isn’t all human life valuable in the eyes of God?’
Eventually, Asia and her family fled Pakistan and began a new life in Canada. Though Saif was offered sanctuary in the Netherlands, he decided not to take it. Even now, he and his family are under police protection.
‘My loved ones are very supportive of what I do. They understand that I have dedicated my life to defending the rights of minorities, and, in particular, the Christian community and individuals accused of blasphemy cases.’
‘I am not frightened because I know that I have a lot of support throughout the world for my work, and that gives me the strength and courage to continue my mission in providing legal aid to all who are wrongly accused of blasphemy, regardless [of] the threat to my life.’
True to his word, Saif has just taken on a new case, defending a Christian couple – Shagufta Kauser, 45, and her husband Shafqat Masih, 35, who have both been sentenced to death, for allegedly sending text messages abusing the Prophet Mohammed. They are both illiterate.
‘I prefer to concentrate on what I can achieve in pulling people out of the gallows. I feel it’s my duty and obligation to so do, until the final day of my life.’
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