How blasphemy still remains Pakistan's notorious law a year after Asia Bibi's acquittal

WION Web Team New Delhi, Delhi, India Feb 27, 2020, 01.02 PM(IST)

File photo. Photograph:( Reuters )

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After Asia Bibi's acquittal, there were mass protests in the country before she moved to Canada.

Blasphemy, a draconian law, has been used over the decades in Pakistan as a clampdown mostly against minorities, where death sentence has also been sentenced in the past.

Asia Bibi, who was acquitted one year ago, battled death sentence for eight years, which became the country's most high-profile case. After Bibi's acquittal, there were mass protests in the country before she moved to Canada.

Also read: Pakistan: University professor sentenced to death for blasphemy

So let's look at what has changed in the country where hardliners traditionally ruled the roost. 

Also read: Finally free! Asia Bibi breaks silence on hellish time in Pak prison, life in exile

"Before Asia Bibi, dozens of maulanas (religious scholars) were coming to my hearings," said the Christian pastor Adnan Prince, who is accused of desecrating the Koran. 

"After that, they didn't come anymore."

However, the situation is not completely rosy as a former judge said that lower courts are often threatened in blasphemy cases and if they acquit the accused they themselves face the risk of being labelled blasphemers.

Recently, Junaid Hafeez, a university professor, was sentenced to death for insulting the Prophet Mohammed. The lawyer who first agreed to represent Junaid got murdered.  
     
"Could any judge in such circumstances take the risk of doing justice?" Junaid's family said in a statement.  

Condemning the sentence, Pakistan's Human Rights Commission said that blasphemy laws are still "heavily misused" and the judicial process was "ridden by delays and pressures at the level of the lower judiciary."

The blasphemy verdicts in lower courts are generally overturned in the higher courts suggests the flawed rulings in such cases. However, Pakistan's sluggish justice system means the appeal process can stretch for years. 

Even after the acquittal, people face the risk of vigilante violence that continues to haunts them.  

Blasphemy is seen as a highly inflammatory charge in Pakistan. Even reform suggestions can trigger violence, most notably in Salmaan Taseer's case, the governor of Pakistan's most populous province. Salmaan was dead by his own bodyguard and his supporters still regard him as a martyr and in fact constructed a popular shrine in his memory on the outskirts of Islamabad after he was hanged four years ago.

During his 2018 campaign, Pakistan PM Imran Khan voiced his full support for defending the blasphemy laws for which he faced a lot of criticism. 

(With AFP inputs)