07/23/2015, 00.00
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For Muslims and Christians, Asia Bibi’s misfortune can be an opportunity to reform the blasphemy laws

by Shafique Khokhar
Iftikhar Ahmad, coordinator of South Asia Partnership Pakistan, calls for a "serious discussion" to achieve change. Religious groups are "more powerful" than the state, and laws are being used against the innocent. For Pakistani priest, the justices’ decision sends a "positive signal". Bibi should be released and get compensation for the “psychological harm” she received, Christian activist said.

Lahore (AsiaNews) – Iftikhar Ahmad, a Muslim activist and coordinator of South Asia Partnership Pakistan, spoke to AsiaNews about yesterday’s ruling by the Supreme Court's Lahore registry putting on hold Asia Bibi’s death sentence pending a review of her case.

“It is a well-established fact that family disputes, personal grudges, work-related rows, jealousies and other issues related to property lead to an abusive reliance on these [blasphemy] laws,” Ahmad said. For this reason, “media and political parties must deal with such a sensitive issue in a serious manner, and allow for an open discussion on the need for reform.”

The Muslim leader noted that "even the slightest criticism of these laws" is now a "rare event" because of threats against anyone who dare speak out. “In Pakistan,” he explained, “it is an open secret that religious groups are more powerful and influential than the state apparatus”. No law can be changed without their backing.

Yet, westerday, a three-member bench at the Supreme Court's Lahore registry admitted the petition filed by Asia Bibi’s lawyers for a full hearing and ordered for all records pertaining to the case that led to her conviction.

The 50-year-old Christian mother of five children was sentenced to death for blasphemy and has been in solitary confinement for many years waiting for her appeal to go through.

Arrested on 19 June 2009, she was sentenced to death by a lower court in November 2010. Since then she has been on death row, and kept in isolation for security reasons.

Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a Muslim, and Federal Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, were murdered in 2011 for speaking out on her behalf.

In order to free her, Pakistani Christians on several occasions have promoted days of fasting and prayer, joined by some Muslims.

The appeal court upheld the original verdict, accepting the accusations made by two Muslim women who said that they witnessed the alleged blasphemy.

Questioned on the matter, Muslim leader Iftikhar Ahmad said that he hoped that Asia Bibi’s case could spark a serious discussion on the blasphemy laws.

Police appear “hopeless” in matters concerning these laws, he added. “No one wants to take on the issue, even though the laws are used against innocent victims” like the Christian woman.

For Fr Khalid Rashid Asi, a priest and scholar, the justices’ decision to hear her lawyers’ appeal is a "positive sign". In order to settle personal scores, her accusers gave “a religious spin to a private dispute”. Ever since, her family has had to live under constant threats. Fortunately, “the world is following the case, hoping to see Asia Bibi released.”

Samson Salamat, a human rights activist who heads the Centre for Human Rights Education, notes that the Supreme Court's decision adds weight to the argument that “blasphemy laws are being misused.”

In his view, the judges must also determine what “the psychological harm” was done to Asia Bibi during her ordeal and years in prison as well as decide on "adequate compensation".

“Newspapers should do their part by highlighting abuses whenever the blasphemy laws are invoked,” he said. “Asia Bibi’s case is a clear example of that. For many years, she suffered for something she did not commit, and a provincial governor even got himself killed for it.”

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