The ICJ today welcomed the Pakistani Supreme Court’s decision to acquit Asia Noreen (Asia Bibi) of blasphemy charges under section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code.
Asia bibi had been on death row since 2010, when a trial court convicted her of “defaming the Prophet Muhammad” and sentenced her to death. The Lahore High Court had upheld her conviction and confirmed her death sentence in 2014.
“All eyes were on the Supreme Court to respond to Asia bibi’s final plea for justice and undo the blatant wrongs done to her and her family for eight long years,” said Frederick Rawski, ICJ’s Asia Director.
“It is heartening to see that despite threats and external pressures, the SC fulfilled its role to protect human rights in this case.”
Certain Islamist groups have frequently held demonstrations calling for Asia bibi and other blasphemy accused to be hanged. After the Supreme Court announced its decision to acquit Asia bibi, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan took to the streets condemning the decision.
“The Government should take notice of this pattern of threats and reprisals in blasphemy cases and ensure that judges and lawyers are given adequate security to perform their duties independently, impartially and without any external influence,” said Rawski.
Reasons for Asia bibi’s acquittal include an unexplained delay in the registration of the criminal complaint; material inconsistencies in the testimonies of prosecution witnesses; wrongful reliance on Asia bibi’s extra-judicial “confession”; and failure to take into account the circumstances of the blasphemy allegations, including a “quarrel”, possibly about Asia bibi’s faith.
The Supreme Court also noted that the context indicates the charges could have arisen from a “false allegation” of blasphemy, echoing concerns also raised by the ICJ that the blasphemy laws in Pakistan have typcially become an instrument of personal vendettas and malicious motivations.
Asia bibi’s appeal was the first blasphemy case being heard by the Supreme Court since 2002. The Court has so far not upheld any convictions for blasphemy under section 295-C of the Penal Code (defamation of the Prophet Muhammad), though dozens of people have been convicted by trial courts and a number of appeals are pending before various appellate forums.
The ICJ has documented in detail systematic and widespread fair trial violations in proceedings related to blasphemy offences in Pakistan.
Courts in Pakistan have noted on multiple occasions that people accused of blasphemy suffer ‘beyond proportion or repair’ in the absence of adequate safeguards against misapplication or misuse of such blasphemy laws.
The ICJ underscores that laws that criminalize the exercise of freedom of expression are non-compliant with international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Pakistan is a party. This includes the criminalization of expression in relation to religion.
The ICJ opposed the death penalty in all circumstances and considers that it constitutes a violation of the right to life and the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.
Frederick Rawski (Bangkok), ICJ Asia Pacific Regional Director, e: frederick.rawski(a)icj.org
Reema Omer, ICJ International Legal Advisor (South Asia) t: +447889565691; e: reema.omer(a)icj.org
In November 2015, the ICJ published a report documenting in detail systematic and widespread violations of the right to a fair trial in proceedings related to blasphemy offences in Pakistan, particularly in trial courts. The report confirmed concerns raised by the Supreme Court of Pakistan that individuals accused of blasphemy ‘suffer beyond proportion or repair’ in the absence of adequate safeguards.
The ICJ also made a number of recommendations to the Pakistani executive, legislative and judicial branches to address violations caused by application of the blasphemy laws, whether due to the legislative provisions themselves or at the investigative, prosecutorial, procedural, administrative and judicial levels highlighted in the report, including to ensure that those accused of blasphemy have a fair chance at defending themselves.
In a briefing paper published in October 2016, the ICJ assessed the fair trial violations in Asia bibi’s trial and appellate hearing. The ICJ found glaring omissions both in the appraisal of evidence as well as the application of laws that brought her conviction into question.NewsWeb stories