The Asia Bibi verdict

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Justice came very late for Asia Bibi but it was finally delivered by a three-member bench headed by Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa on 29th January. This was an auspicious start to the tenure of the new Chief Justice and augurs well for the future. The bench dismissed the review petition that had been sought overturning the acquittal of Asia Bibi, rejecting the appeal ‘on merit’ and ending a legal battle that has gone on for almost nine years. The apex court has driven a coach and horses through the appeal of those seeking to reinstate the guilty verdict and by extension the death penalty. It has called for the prosecution of those who have given false or misleading evidence, a call we would strongly support.

An innocent woman has spent eight years on death row, much of it in solitary confinement. The toll on her physical and mental health is incalculable. That she was ever in court in the first place came as the result of a catalogue of errors that were obvious at the time yet did not trigger the case being short-circuited, tangled as it was in the blasphemy laws. Despite the apex court acquitting her last year the persecutors of Asia Bibi sought again to have her behind bars – and they failed. Since the overturning of the verdict in 2018 she has lived in a secure safe house, protected by the state from those – and there are many – who would kill her if they could. It is reliably reported that her two children are already out of the country and there are unverified reports that she would now seek asylum, possibly in Canada. It is clear that she would never be able to live a safe life in Pakistan and asylum is her only refuge.

Justice has been done and it is no understatement to say that the finding in favour of Asia Bibi truly is a landmark. The decision is courageous because the Chief Justice will be aware of the threats made against those judges that overturned her conviction last November. It is a landmark decision because it is a direct challenge to a conservative mindset that has held sway for far too long. And it is a landmark for all those that have run afoul of the blasphemy laws which if any legislation is in need of reform it is them. Lastly but by no means least it will be a signal, much needed, to religious minorities that there are parts of the state which can and do treat them with fairness and equality.

At the time of writing the country appears quiet despite the promises by some hardline clerics that there would be disruption in the event of the apex court delivering a verdict not to their liking. It may be that their response is muted by the fact that the state moved pre-emptively and placed some leading hardliners in what is euphemistically called ‘protective custody.’ By late afternoon Asia Bibi’s lawyer was quoted as saying that she would be leaving the country ‘very soon’.

The case of Asia Bibi may finally be drawing to a conclusion, but the state of Pakistan is left with much to ponder. An imperfect and corrupt police force across the country. Flawed procedures and rules of evidence. The gathering of evidence in criminal cases. The blasphemy laws. An ossified and overloaded legal system. A swathe of issues around fundamental human rights. A media that can act at times with gross irresponsibility. The list goes on but at least one woman today has her freedom – a freedom that should never have been denied to her in the first place. To Asia Bibi we wish a long, safe and happ(ier) life.