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Pakistan

Asia Bibi final acquittal tests Pakistan’s blasphemy law

An undated photo of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman at the centre of a years-long blasphemy row
An undated photo of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman at the centre of a years-long blasphemy row AFP/British Pakistani Christian Association

Pakistan braced itself for fresh protests from religious hardliners on Wednesday, after the country's top court upheld a decision to acquit a Christian woman of blasphemy. The case of Asia Bibi has exposed the painful rifts in Pakistani society.

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"Blasphemy is so sensitive an issue that you might be killed even if you are acquitted,” Alix Philippon, a lecturer and researcher at Sciences Po University in Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France told RFI.

Extremists have called for her death, vowing to "kill Bibi" despite the Supreme Court ruling Tuesday to uphold her acquittal, according to her lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook.

She was originally convicted in 2010 after being accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad in a row with her neighbours, but the Supreme Court overturned that decision in October 2018.

Radical groups then filed a last-minute appeal for a review of the Supreme Court acquittal, which was rejected on Tuesday.

"The Supreme Court has not surrendered to the Islamists," says Philippon, praising the court for standing up to religious hardliners.

"Right now the situation is not so much in favour of the TLP (the radical Tehreek-e-Labbaik party)," which was responsible for the massive mobilisation against Bibi's October acquittal and which called for Wednesday's protests. Today the Supreme Court is in a position of power."

This is due to the changing landscape. Most of the TLP's leaders are in detention following a government crackdown.

Even so, that did not prevent small demonstrations from taking place in some cities late on Tuesday. Their intensity however, has been muted.

"The reaction so far hasn't been as strong as protests in November [2018],"  Ammar Rashid, a researcher and member of the left-wing Awami Workers Party said, suggesting the government crackdown on the TLP may be working.

"There is a sense that the state has taken a stand on the question of blasphemy."

Slow to act

Still, its response, Rashid said, could have been quicker.

"One reason why such violence has taken place in the name of blasphemy is because the state has actively employed right wing groups for its own strategic interests," he says.

The United States has long accused Pakistan of sponsoring militant groups to fight in Afghanistan and Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.

"In many ways, we are a product of the state’s use of Islam as a tool to consolidate power," continues Rashid.

"The Asia case is a particularly ugly chapter, in which one woman was kept behind bars for an allegation by some people who were close to her.

The blasphemy debate has exposed painful rifts in Pakistan, the second largest Muslim nation in the world and the only country established in the name of Islam.

Some 60 percent of Muslims belong to the Barelvi school of thought, focused on the veneration of the prophet Muhammad and the veneration of the Sufi saint.

"This specific cause is extremely dear to the hearts of many Pakistanis," comments lecturer and researcher Alix Philippon.

This is partly because the Tehreek-e-Labbaik party has made the protection of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad its single-point agenda.

Fight for identity

"The fact that one specific party has moved forward and promoted blasphemy in the public sphere has triggered massive support amongst the population," explains Philippon.

The party's popularity may now dwindle given that most of its members are in prison. Yet, the blasphemy debate is likely to continue.

"The blasphemy law has become the last bastion of the country's Islamic identity", comments Philippon, saying it is unlikely that Pakistan will reform anytime soon.

"This needs to be understood in the background of the war on terror since 2001, and the fact that many people in Pakistan feel that there has been a process of secularization under the influence of the US."

Under Pakistan's Penal Code Section 295 - the law used against Bibi - any derogatory remark against the Prophet Muhammad is punishable by death.

Blasphemy and - religious extremism

Pakistan's blasphemy laws, however, are increasingly being called into question.

"There is a realization dawning among elites that there has been a real rise in religious fanaticism and this has caused a lot of violence and is destroying the foundations of the state," reckons Rashid.

Failure to repeal the laws will only strengthen religious extremists and their violent followers, reckons for his part Mitchell Belfer, senior lecturer in international relations at the Metropolitan University in Prague.

“Religious extremism [in Pakistan] has been a long time coming," he says, and is being fueled by "a huge disparity in wealth between urban centres and federally administered tribal areas," he told RFI.

For Belfer, "it comes as no surprise that something as charged as blasphemy could create such fury among a population that has largely been relegated to the sidelines," he says, referring to the many young, unemployed men that belong to the TLP.

Bibi's case has highlighted the strong influence of religious extremists, that Pakistan is only starting to grapple with.

'Misery over'

She is expected to leave the country in the coming days, after remaining in protective custody since her first acquittal last October.

"Her misery has come to an end," jubilates Nasir Saeed, Director for CLAAS-UK, a charity that has been campaigning for her release since 2009.

Some reports suggest about 40 other people convicted of blasphemy offences are still on death row.

"We hope her case will unblock the many other cases of people who are still suffering," he told RFI.

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