Why Pakistanis must speak up against blasphemy laws By Farahnaz Ispahani

Asia Bibi’s case illustrates how blasphemy laws are used to persecute the weakest of the weak among the country’s religious minorities.

After a long and tortured eight years, Asia Noreen Bibi — a poor agricultural worker, who has been sitting on death row on allegations of blasphemy — finally had her appeal heard by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. But, like many actions taken by the country’s highest court recently, the long-awaited judgment caused some consternation by not being announced.

Asia Noreen Bibi

The decision to reserve the judgment has often been the practice in high-profile political or social cases. In Asia Bibi’s case, the court is likely concerned about the anticipated reaction from Pakistan extremist Islamist groups — some of whom are already threatening adverse consequences if Bibi is acquitted. Even under Pakistan’s flawed blasphemy laws, the case against Bibi was based on contradictory testimony and should result in acquittal on appeal, in the view of most legal experts.

The Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), the influential Islamist group which won 2.2 million votes out of 40 million votes cast, and which came second or third in some key contests, beating established political parties, is leading the charge against Asia Bibi’s acquittal. Prime Minister Imran Khan gave the group its first victory by sacking distinguished Princeton University economist, Atif Mian, from the Economic Advisory Council because of his Ahmadi faith.

The TLP has made punishing blasphemy its rallying cry and lionises Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who murdered former Punjab governor Salman Taseer in January 2011 for advocating changes to Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

Salman Taseer was killed for speaking out against the blasphemy law.

The party’s leaders have now warned the Supreme Court against any “concession or softness” for Bibi and have said that there would be “terrible consequences” if, as has been suggested, Asia Bibi is allowed to proceed abroad for her safety after acquittal by the Supreme Court.

TLP leader Pir Afzal Qadri has reportedly declared that the judge who orders Asia Bibi’s release “must be killed because he is an absolute apostate” and “only an apostate can pardon a blasphemer.” In his view, evidence and the application of relevant laws are irrelevant. According to Qadri, the government “should hang” the lenient judge — otherwise “Prophet lovers would kill” him.

And there lies the peril of Pakistan’s non-debate on its draconian blasphemy laws.

Not only is someone convicted under the law punishable by death, even someone who acquits an accused person runs the risk of being labelled an apostate — it is as if an allegation of blasphemy is of itself the beginning as well as the end of the entire legal process.

Bibi, an illiterate berry picker, was convicted on the grounds of defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed. Her Muslim neighbours objected to her drinking water from the same glass as them because she was Christian. Whatever she said in response was reported by the neighbours as blasphemous, starting the poor woman’s eight-year long ordeal.

Under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, Bibi’s alleged comment is punishable by death.

In 2010, Bibi, at age 45, was sentenced to death by hanging — a decision that attracted international condemnation. Western governments and religious freedom advocates have voiced support for Bibi and in February this year, Pope Francis described Bibi, alongside a Nigerian woman who was captured by Boko Haram, as martyrs.

Caught between domestic demands against any tolerance of alleged blasphemy and international pressure for Asia Bibi’s release, successive Pakistani governments have kept her case lingering through Pakistan’s generally slow legal system. But even if she is finally spared the gallows and allowed to leave the country, Asia Bibi’s case will continue to illustrate how blasphemy laws are used to persecute the weakest of the weak among Pakistan’s religious minorities.

Can Pakistan’s Supreme Court grant Asia Bibi her freedom?

As a poor Christian from a lower caste, Bibi was among the most vulnerable and susceptible to discrimination.

And the legal system — which, in theory, should be designed to protect the innocent — failed her in every way. Threats of violence by religious vigilantes and the tendency of Pakistani leaders to bow down to extremists have made it virtually impossible to amend the unjust laws.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws date back to the military dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. In 1980, making a derogatory remark against any Islamic personage was defined as a crime under Pakistan’s Penal Code Section 295, punishable by three years in prison. In 1982, another clause was added that prescribed life imprisonment for “wilful desecration of the Quran” and, in 1986, a separate clause was added to punish blasphemy against Prophet Mohammed with “death, or imprisonment for life”.

Bibi’s case isn’t the first in which Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been used to punish minority groups. Since Zia-ul-Haq imposed the laws, their application has unleashed extremist religious frenzy.

Procedures for investigation and prosecution lend themselves to widespread abuse. Assertion by a Muslim witness that blasphemy was committed is sufficient for filing of charges and the arrest of a suspect — even without corroborating evidence. Furthermore, the testimony of non-Muslim witnesses in defence carries less weight, and, in most cases, the filing of charges is tantamount to punishment, because bail is denied.

Worse still, once blasphemy is alleged, mob violence or targeted killing becomes a possibility. According to researcher Mohammed Nafees, from 1990-2011, there were over 50 cases “wherein blasphemy suspects were either extra-judicially murdered or died in jail”.

To quote a 2016 Amnesty International report, As Good as Dead: The Impact of Blasphemy laws in Pakistan, once an individual is accused of blasphemy, “They become ensnared in a system that offers them few protections, presumes them guilty, and fails to safeguard them against people willing to use violence.”

Lawyers who dare to represent someone accused of blasphemy have also been killed. In 2014, Rashid Rehman, a distinguished human rights lawyer brave enough to represent those most vulnerable to blasphemy charges — women and children of religious minorities, people with mental disabilities, and the weak and impoverished — was shot dead in his office by two unidentified gunmen.

Meanwhile, judges who have dared to acquit an alleged blasphemer or convict the killer of an alleged blasphemer have either had to flee the country or face death. It remains to be seen whether Pakistan’s Supreme Court can change that unfortunate recent history by granting Asia Bibi the freedom she deserves.

Eventually, Pakistanis have to find the courage to confront religious extremists and subdue the passions over blasphemy that undermine their country’s capacity to protect religious minorities.

The Article was published in “dailyo” and the link to the original article is Why Pakistanis must speak up against blasphemy laws


Farahnaz IspahaniFARAHNAZ ISPAHANI @fispahani

Farahnaz Ispahani is a former member of Pakistan’s National Assembly. She is Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC and the author of Purifying the Land of the the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities.

‘Imran Khan’s desire to improve relations with Iran is good for regional stability’ Farahnaz Ispahani

Farahnaz Ispahani

TEHRAN – Pakistan has just given mandate to Imran Khan led Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf (PTI) to form the new government, albeit with the help of other smaller parties. Despite controversies surrounding the election outcome, Imran Khan is all set to take oath as the new Prime Minister of Pakistan later this week. The new government faces many challenges in terms of domestic issues and foreign policy.

Farahnaz Ispahani is a Pakistani politician and former Member of the Parliament (MP). She served as Media Advisor to the President of Pakistan from 2008 to 2012. She is currently Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington and is the author of the book ‘Purifying the Land of the Pure: The History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities’.

In an interview with Tehran Times, she spoke about the political transition in Pakistan, the challenges for the new government, Imran Khan’s foreign policy matters, Pakistan’s relations with Iran and the U.S. and why parties like PML-N and PPP will bounce back.

Following are the excerpts:

Q. Imran Khan is all set to become the new prime minister of Pakistan. What are the biggest challenges before his government?

A. The biggest challenge facing Pakistan today is the economy. We need both immediate and long term relief. Saudi Arabia and China are reported to have offered monetary help to the tune of $8 billion and $2 billion respectively and a new International Monetary Fund (IMF) program is also being considered. Even if the IMF program is obtained it will involve onerous conditions. Pakistan needs to break out of its cycles of boom and bust but for that serious reform, not gimmicks and temporary solutions, are needed.

The United States, which has bailed Pakistan out repeatedly since the early 1950s, seems unlikely to help generously this time.

After the pressing economic issues, the nation must deal with the continued presence of extremist parties and terrorist groups. There were several terrorist attacks during the recent election campaign and religious minorities, both Muslim and non-Muslim, face increasing challenges.

Education, health and other social sector indicators show Pakistan to be lagging behind. To correct that downward trajectory we need good long term policies and resources to implement them. Neither of which we have had for decades.

Q. The general election was marred by accusations of vote rigging allegedly engineered by the military. Do you think Imran Khan had the backing of military?

A. Yes. Imran Khan and the PTI have had the backing of the Pakistan army and establishment which includes the judiciary. The restrictions on the media were at an all-time high.

Pre-poll rigging has been accepted by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and the EU Election Observer team. Many Pakistani political parties, candidates, activists and media have reported election irregularities all over the country. So, proof of the engineered results exists. But, Mr. Khan also had his support base.

Q. In his campaign, Khan spoke about domestic issues like rebuilding institutions of governance and fighting corruption but he didn’t clearly outline his foreign policy. Do you think his foreign policy will be any different from his predecessors?

A. No. Mr. Khan has few foreign policy interests and no expertise or experience. However he had spoken in support of the Afghan Taliban and made some positive remarks about Pakistan’s allies Saudi Arabia and China. He has been largely anti-American in his past views.

The bottom line, however, is that the army controls foreign policy and they expect to continue to do so. If Khan steps out of line he will face the consequences like his predecessors.

Q. He also spoke about improving ties with Iran and playing a role in bringing Tehran and Riyadh closer. Is that going to happen?

A. The desire to improve relations with Iran is a positive one. Let us hope he can deliver that for regional stability. But he will have to tread carefully to not upset Pakistan’s other friends and benefactors.

As for acting as an intermediary, it’s highly unlikely that Pakistan can bridge serious and ongoing differences between the two Muslim countries. For that, the Iranian and Saudi leaders would have to find common ground themselves.

Q. Khan’s biggest test would be America because he has been critical of Trump’s foreign policy and has even supported Iranian nuclear deal. Do you think Pakistan has the best chance to come out of US shadow under him?

A. Pakistan’s foreign policy has always been directed by the Pakistani military and is destined to remain that way for the near future. The Trump administration has adopted a tough posture with Pakistan and Khan cannot change that posture without changing Pakistan’s policies on Afghanistan and terrorism. The course of Pakistan-Iran relations of course depends on the two states themselves.

Q. How do you see Pakistan’s relations with China shaping up under the new government?

A. China is the biggest power player in Pakistan today. China-Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC) has ensured that. For the near future I see a further deepening of Pakistan-China ties.

Q. PML-N has lost the ground across the country, even in Punjab. PPP has been relegated to sidelines. Do you think it will be difficult for these two parties to comeback from here?

A. Politics and political parties rarely die out. I do see a continued role for both parties in Pakistan’s future.

Note: The Interview was published Syed Zafar Mehdi in Tehran Times on August 7, 2018 and the link to the interview is http://www.tehrantimes.com/news/426213/Imran-Khan-s-desire-to-improve-relations-with-Iran-is-good-for

Time of India-The Interviews Blog : ‘Imran Khan sounded statesmanlike regarding better ties with India … but he has often gone back on statements’ tells Farahnaz Ispahani

Farahnaz Ispahani is Global Fellow at Washington’s Wilson Centre, former member of Pakistani parliament (from Pakistan People’s Party) and former media adviser to the Pakistani president. She spoke to Rohit E David on Imran Khan being set to become the new prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif’s decision to come back to the country, and the role the military will continue to have in Pakistani politics:

Farahnaz Ispahani

How will Imran Khan becoming PM change the scenario in Pakistan?

Farahnaz Ispahani: Imran Khan has won the election amidst the most serious and blatant charges of election rigging in Pakistan’s political history. Khan’s arrogant personality and inability to forgive will make it difficult for him to take the opposition parties along – and with his slim lead this will create an extremely divided parliament. And, potentially weaken the ability of the government to make decisions and then implement them. The scenario in Pakistan is already fraught with tension. Frequent terror attacks by extremist groups, increasing sectarianism, an economy on the brink of collapse and Khan’s openly espoused contempt for India and the United States will lead to an even weaker nation.

Do you feel that Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan was a blunder?

Farahnaz Ispahani: In retrospect it was ill advised. He was basing his return on assumptions that failed to occur. I believe Nawaz Sharif was removed from his post as prime minister unconstitutionally as his disqualification preceded his trial. At the time of his disqualification, no court of law had carried out a trial and the Supreme Court acted at the military’s behest. As for his return, like any other citizen of Pakistan he had the right to come home and participate in the democratic process. Sharif also has millions of supporters who he thought needed his presence to lead the election.

How will Pakistan’s relation with India change with Khan as PM?

Farahnaz Ispahani: Imran Khan was brought to power by the establishment. Military, intelligence agencies, judiciary and the election commission of Pakistan. I believe, the military, his biggest benefactor, will make him toe the line with India. And, if Khan tries to act in a more open manner with India he will feel the power of the boot very quickly. In any case statements made by him and his party members in the past and present indicate there is contempt among PTI leaders regarding Pakistan’s largest neighbour.

Will Pakistani army have a larger say in the daily working of parliament?

Farahnaz Ispahani: Pakistan army worked very hard to get Khan elected. And, did so in a very obvious manner. Therefore, they will expect him to be grateful and continue to follow their lead vis-a-vis India and the United States – and leave all the foreign, defence and economic policy decisions in their hands.

Has Pakistan rejected hardline Islamist parties?

Farahnaz Ispahani: Pakistan’s hardline Islamist parties do not usually do very well at the ballot box. Khan’s nickname of ‘Taliban Khan’ and his support of the blasphemy law indicates that he will, if not outrightly, support the Islamist parties. Because he shares some of their beliefs he may want to work with them as prime minister. In his first address to the nation Imran Khan sounded positive and statesmanlike regarding better ties with India and the United States but he has often gone back on previous statements. In any case, even if we grant him the best will in the world, most of his speech will not be acted upon. The military establishment will ensure that.

Is it the end of the road for Bilawal Bhutto?

Farahnaz Ispahani: Bilawal Bhutto ran the PPP election campaign this cycle and he retained the home base of Sindh province. He has also contested and won his first seat in the National Assembly of Pakistan. Most analysts have said Mr Bhutto-Zardari conducted himself with maturity at the young age of 29. The real question is whether the PPP will remain the regional party his father Asif Zardari has made it – or could it become a federal/national party again? Too soon to say.

Election authorities had granted military officers broad powers inside polling centres. Do you feel the elections were rigged?

Farahnaz Ispahani: Yes. I do believe the elections were rigged. Openly and blatantly. Every major opposition party has commented on it including former Punjab chief minister (and Nawaz Sharif’s brother) Shehbaz Sharif. The election was marred by allegations of military meddling and pre-poll rigging. Pakistan’s military, intelligence services, judiciary, and the election commission have interfered directly in the past as well. The ‘establishment’ as Pakistanis refer to it has created political alliances and propped up politicians throughout Pakistan’s political history. But this time, all pretence was abandoned.

Pre-poll rigging was carried out through media censorship, the targeted disqualifications of leading politicians, and the mainstreaming of terrorists. Election day continued with even more flagrant manipulation.

Note: The Interior was Published by “Time of Indian” and the link to the Interview is Interview of Farahnaz Ispahani with Time of India