In October, the Pakistan court upheld Christian Asiya Noreen’s 2010 conviction for blasphemy and the death sentence for the crime of insulting Islam. But the case has taken a turn as new evidence has been brought forth. “The bench has referred the case to the executive for consideration after identifying a legal glitch,” said Abid Saqi, former President of Lahore High Court Bar Association.
Noreen, popularly known as Asiya Bibi, was a day laborer whose argument with a Muslim coworker exploded into a highly charged test of the country’s anti-blasphemy laws. These laws are widely criticized abroad but are popular among voters in this Muslim-majority nation. The controversial case resulted in the 2010 conviction and subsequence death sentence, upheld by the appeals court on October 16 of this year.
The appeals judges now explain they had no choice because of the way Pakistan’s laws are written, and they have turned to lawmakers to create legislation that would empower trial courts to apply a test that would make future blasphemy convictions much more difficult to achieve. No such test was in place when Noreen was tried.
The High Court’s legal reasoning and proposed legislation intended to close the loophole through which it says Noreen has fallen, was not available on October 16. In Pakistan, blasphemy against Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam, is a crime punishable by death, though a death sentence for blasphemy has never been carried out.
That glitch, Saqi said, involves a legal principle found in Islamic law called tazkiya al shuhood, which requires accusers to meet strict standards of Islamic piety. This precedent came into play when Noreen’s lawyer, Naeem Shakir, embarked on an unconventional legal strategy, attempting to subject his Christian client to Islamic law rather than Pakistan’s secular laws.
Pakistan’s Federal Shariat Court, which determines whether the country’s laws comply with the principles of Islam, declared in 1990 that insulting the Prophet qualifies as hadd – a category of crimes and punishments designated in the Quran and the tradition of the Prophet. Accordingly, the Shariat Court ruled that the only acceptable penalty is death. In such cases, though, the strictest standards of evidence, or tazkiya al shuhood, must be used. Those stringent guidelines were not used at Noreen’s 2010 court trial, rendering the conviction invalid, Shakir argued.
The judges ordered that the Ministry of Law, Justice and Human Rights transmit the court’s request to the Pakistani government. If the government complies with the High Court’s request – a separate matter entirely – blasphemy defendants in Pakistan theoretically could place nearly insurmountable barriers in front of accusers.
Placing the matter in the hands of Pakistan lawmakers brings the possibility of renewed public debate over an extremely sensitive issue for the country. Politicians have been killed for speaking out in favor of reform.
Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi, a staunch supporter of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws, nonetheless told World Watch Monitor he views the High Court’s request favorably. “In all cases, the evidence must meet the standards prescribed in the Islamic legal system,” said Ashrafi, chairman of the Pakistan Ulema Council, a body of Islamic clerics and scholars.
Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, a lawyer who represented Noreen’s accuser, disagrees, declaring there is no need to expand the application of tazkiyah al shuhood. “The current anti-blasphemy laws were perfectly fine, and there is no need to introduce any procedural amendment in them,” Chaudhry told World Watch Monitor.
Chaudhry, president of the Khatme Nabuwat (Finality of Prophethood) Lawyers’ Forum, said in death penalty cases, a superintendent of police is appointed to collect evidence. “Junior officers can do hanky-panky, but not senior officers of the SP post. So questioning from them already means a high standard of evidence,” he said.
“If one really insists on the tazkiyah al shuhood standard of evidence then it shouldn’t just apply on witnesses… The entire society must operate on Islamic principles rather than just cherry picked laws that suit to the interests of certain people.”
Meanwhile, Asiya Bibi still faces a death sentence, and it remains to be seen how this turn of events will impact her case.
Father, as we come before You on behalf of our sister Asiya Bibi, we thank You for the confidence that You are there with her and that You are present in the court proceedings. We pray that Asiya Bibi’s death sentence will be overturned and that the laws will be changed in Pakistan to strengthen the application of true justice. Show her Your presence today in tangible ways. Strengthen her through the power of the Holy Spirit within her, and let her know that we are praying for her; that all over the world, we are praying. In the name of Jesus, who rules with true justice and righteousness, Amen.