Photo Credit: British-Pakistani Christian Association
A Christian mother of four who has been held in solitary confinement on death row since 2010 after being convicted of blasphemy has been acquitted by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. Asia Bibi was detained after a row with her co-workers in June 2009. She had drunk a glass of water but her co-workers said that, by drinking from a cup meant for Muslims, she had made it ritually unclean. They demanded she convert to Islam but she refused. It is alleged that she then made offensive remarks about the Islamic prophet Muhammad during an altercation.
After years of delays, a panel of three senior judges - Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel – finally heard Bibi’s much-delayed appeal earlier this month. Today, in Islamabad, they delivered a detailed verdict and demanded her immediate release.
The Judges said that 25-30 ladies were present at the altercation but only two had made a complaint about Bibi, and that neither of them had appeared in court to testify. The prosecution relied on a confession that Bibi allegedly made after the altercation, when she was called to a public meeting held by Imam Qari Saalam, the complainant in the case.
Bibi’s lawyers said that the confession “was not voluntary but rather resulted out of coercion and undue pressure as the appellant was forcibly brought before the complainant in presence of a gathering, who were threatening to kill her; as such, it cannot be made the basis of a conviction.”
In reaching their decision, the judges also considered a delay of five days between the alleged “confession” and the report to the police; that the case was not investigated by an officer of the rank required by law; and that the prosecution was bought without the required consent of a government officer.
The judges pointed to “conflicts” and “contradictions” in the Prosecution case and said that “it is a well settled principle of law that one who makes an assertion has to prove it. Thus, the onus rests on the prosecution to prove guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt throughout the trial.
“Presumption of innocence remains throughout the case until such time the prosecution on the evidence satisfies the Court beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of the offence alleged against him. There cannot be a fair trial, which is itself the primary purpose of criminal jurisprudence, if the judges have not been able to clearly elucidate the rudimentary concept of standard of proof that prosecution must meet in order to obtain a conviction.
“Two concepts ie, ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt’ and ‘presumption of innocence’ are so closely linked together that the same must be presented as one unit. If the presumption of innocence is a golden thread to criminal jurisprudence, then proof beyond reasonable doubt is silver, and these two threads are forever intertwined in the fabric of criminal justice system. As such, the expression ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt’ is of fundamental importance to the criminal justice: it is one of the principles which seeks to ensure that no innocent person is convicted.
“Where there is any doubt in the prosecution story, benefit should be given to the accused, which is quite consistent with the safe administration of criminal justice. Further, suspicion howsoever grave or strong can never be a proper substitute for the standard of proof required in a criminal case, ie beyond reasonable doubt. In the presence of enmity between the accused and the complainant / witnesses, usually a strict standard of proof is applied for determining the innocence or guilt of the accused.
“If the [Prosecution Witnesses] are found inimical towards the accused, she deserves acquittal on the principle of the benefit of the doubt. Keeping in mind the evidence produced by the prosecution against the alleged blasphemy committed by the appellant, the prosecution has categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.”
They added: “Consequently, the conviction as also the sentence of death awarded to the appellant is set aside and she is acquitted of the charge. She be released from jail forthwith, if not required in any other criminal case.”
Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws have become a source of tension in the country with clear examples that they are being used as a means of settling scores – particularly against non-Christians. Asia Bibi had become the first woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy. Although a number of men had been handed the sentence, it has never been carried out. However, people accused of blasphemy have often been attacked and murdered before or after coming to trial.
The Anglican Consultative Council is amongst the many international bodies that had called for Asia Bibi’s release.