Asia Bibi’s final appeal against her execution in the Supreme Court of Pakistan went on for more than two hours. Below, World Watch Monitor provides details of what was said.
Asia Bibi’s appeal hearing on 8 October took place before a three-member bench – Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel – who calmly heard arguments from both sides and raised several probing questions to ascertain the truth.
First, Saif-ul-Malook, the counsel for Asia Bibi, presented his arguments that there was insufficient evidence and the case was filed out of malice. Then the counsel for the complainant, Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, claimed “disrespecting” Islam was part of the Christian faith and that Asia Bibi was simply following in a centuries-old tradition of hate speech against Islam and its prophet by Christians, which, he said, began in Muslim Spain.
The prosecution made the allegation that Asia Bibi was “a Christian preacher” and that on the afternoon of the alleged blasphemy, 14 June, 2009, she was picking falsa berries in the fields of Sheikhupura, when, out of nowhere, she began speaking ill against the Quran and Muhammad. He said an assembly of clerics and village elders had thoroughly investigated the matter, and that Asia Bibi had also “confessed” to making blasphemous statements, after which she was handed over to the police. (Asia Bibi has always maintained that she never insulted Islam, nor its prophet, and that she never confessed to doing so.)
The defence began by reading the first information report filed by the complainant on 19 June 2009, five days after the alleged blasphemy, but skipped over the “blasphemous” passages, leaving the judges to read them themselves, as reading them aloud could be construed as committing blasphemy again.
Her defence Malook said that the complainant, Qari Muhammad Salaam, did not witness the incident and questioned why it had taken five days for the matter to be brought to the police’s attention, and why the prosecution had provided no reasonable justification for this.
“The quarrel arose when, at the heat of the day, Asia brought water for her two female co-workers, Mafia Bibi* and Asma Bibi, [who are] sisters,” he said. “They refused to take it, telling her, ‘Since you are a Christian so we cannot take water from your hand’.” (Christians in Pakistan are considered “untouchable” by some, as a result of the Hindu caste system inherited from India.)
“After this incident, the two sisters, Mafia and Asma, went to Qari Muhammad Salaam’s wife, Samina Bibi, who had been their teacher. So Salaam became the main complainant of the case against Asia Bibi on a hearsay,” Malook said.
He added that when the complainant and the two women testified in the original trial court, they did not tell the court there had been any argument over the water.
“The superintendent of police who investigated the case, and Muhammad Idrees, the owner of the fields where they all were working, witnessed in the trial court that the matter arose over drinking water,” he said.
“The first information report was written by an unidentified lawyer and the complainant has failed to recall his name,” Malook added.
He said “there is a possibility that someone had put the complainant Salaam in it because he was not an eyewitness of the incident” and also queried why the 20 other women working in the field had not been questioned by police.
On being asked by Chief Justice Saqib Nisar if there was any evidence to support the claim that Asia Bibi was a Christian preacher, Malook responded: “There was no such evidence. Asia Bibi has stated in the trial court that she was illiterate, and the witnesses have not presented any facts to prove this [preacher] claim.”
After it was alleged that Asia Bibi confessed her crime before an “assembly”, Malooq said witnesses suggested at least four different places where the alleged gathering took place, as well as three different dates for when it took place and with estimations for the number of participants ranging from 200 to 2,000.
Chief Justice Saqib Nisar also inquired if any evidence was brought regarding the claim that Asia Bibi had blasphemed against the Quran. Malook informed the court that no evidence was presented regarding this claim.
‘It’s part of Christian faith to disrespect Islam’
Prosecution counsel Chaudhry began by suggesting a pattern of anti-Muslim rhetoric among Christians, saying: “It started in Spain [when it was ruled by Muslims] and now it is part of the Christian faith to disrespect Islam and the Holy Prophet.
“A priest gathered Christian youths in Spain and taught them that they could not enter the paradise until they disrespect Prophet Muhammad. After this, each day one Christian youth came out who spoke disrespectful words against the Prophet and was beheaded … Asia Bibi has spoken exactly the same disrespectful wording.”
When asked whether it was possible that the blasphemy had been fabricated by the lawyer who originally lodged the remark, Chaudhry said: “No Muslim can even think of doing this. The defendant turns into a hero after committing this crime. Their families get asylum abroad. There cannot be a worst crime than blasphemy but not a single individual is ever hanged.”
Both Chief Justice Saqib Nisar and Justice Asif Khosa asked Chaudhry to provide a reason why they should believe the provided evidence when there were so many loopholes and ordered Chaudhry to “stick to the evidence of the case”.
Regarding the delay in lodging the complaint after five days, Chaudhry said the village elders and clerics had taken time to consider the matter in view of its sensitivity.
“Asia Bibi confessed her crime in an assembly,” Chaudhry said.
Though Justice Khosa replied: “The assembly is an asserted fact, not an admitted fact.”
“The senior police officer who investigated Asia Bibi and others says the incident took place and no defence witness denied the incident, which proves that the incident happened,” Chaudhry argued.
However, Justice Khosa said that although Asia Bibi’s lawyer failed to raise an objection to the three blasphemous statements in the initial trial, this could not be used in court as proof that Asia Bibi had made the statements.
“Can a person be hanged [just because] his lawyer failed to cross-examine the occurrence of the incident?” Justice Khosa said.
Justice Khosa asked why the witnesses did not admit that they had first provoked Asia Bibi about her religion.
Chaudhry replied: “They refused water from her because she was Christian. But they did not say a single word about her Christian faith. I have not seen a single Muslim who speaks a word against their [Christians’] prophets.”
“She was insulted because of her religion,” Justice Khosa remarked, and then read from the Quran:
“And do not insult those they invoke other than Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge.” (6:108)
“Why don’t you follow this commandment of Allah?” Justice Khosa asked. “This could be a case of insult versus insult.”
He added that the witnesses had given “several mutually contradictory statements” and failed to provide concrete evidence.
“In our religion, strict level of evidence is required and giving truthful evidence is a prerogative of a Muslim as the Holy Quran says,” said Justice Khosa, before reading the following Quranic verse:
“O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even though it be against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin.” (4:135)
Chief Justice Saqib Nisar said extrajudicial confession was the weakest form of evidence in criminal law. “It is admissible evidence, but the weakest one.”
But Chaudhry said that the women who had given evidence against Asia Bibi were purdah-observing Muslims (women who wore the veil), and that the protestations of the defence should not be sufficient to overturn the ruling.
Chaudhry concluded by reading some references from the Quran about respecting Muhammad.
The same week as the Supreme Court hearing, Asia Bibi’s husband and youngest daughter Eicham were in London to raise awareness of her plight, at the invitation of the Catholic agency, Aid to the Church in Need (see above).
*Bibi is a respectful term for a married or older woman in Pakistan and other parts of South Asia, and not a family name.