In a replay of 1977 anti-government demonstration, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is facing violent protests in Asia Bibi case, writes Abdus Sattar Ghazali
In 1977, the so-called Pakistan National Alliance, comprising three main religious parties – Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP), some other political parties and fringe groups – launched a violent campaign with a single point agenda to remove the elected government of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto accusing him of rigging the March 1977 elections in which religious parties performed poor.
Their election agenda was to establish Islamic rule in the country. The PNA was successful in its mission as the Army Chief General Ziaul Haq deposed Bhutto and imposed martial law.
Fast forward to 2018, the government of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is facing violent protests by religious parties to destabilize the newly elected government.
Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) an alliance of five religio-political parties that include Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith (JA), Tehreek-e-Jafaria Pakistan (TJP) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP), plans to hold a ‘million march’ in Karachi on Thursday (Nov 8) against the Supreme Court’s recent acquittal of Asia Bibi — a Christian woman who was previously sentenced to death on blasphemy charges by lower courts.
Ironically, three of the five MMA parties include three religious parties which were members of the 1977 anti-Bhutto alliance.
Pakistan witnessed violent demonstrations for three days as the Supreme Court announced the verdict on Wednesday Oct 31 in Bibi case. The demonstrations were called by a new religious party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP)
Shortly after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling was pronounced, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) leaders Khadim Rizvi, led a major protest outside government buildings in the eastern city of Lahore, with fellow TLP leaders declaring the three judges who acquitted Bibi to be “liable to be killed”.
The sit-in protest in Lahore remained the largest TLP demonstration on Thursday, with other major demonstrations being held in the southern city of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest. Protesters are also blockading a major highway into the capital, Islamabad.
Most schools and many businesses remained closed in all three cities through the day, with hospitals on high alert in case the protests turned violent. Highways were partially shut down and the federal cabinet held an emergency meeting to discuss the law and order situation.
On November 2, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan agreed with the government to end the violent demonstrations which had paralyzed the country and caused extensive material and economic damage.
According to agreement:
- a review appeal has been filed in the case of Asia Bibi which is the legal right of complainants and government will have no objection on it.
- initiate legal proceedings to prevent her from traveling abroad. Asia Bibi has been offered asylum by several countries.
- people who have been arrested against the acquittal of Asia Bibi Masih from October 30th onwards will be immediately released.
Tehreek-e-Labbaik says judges who acquitted Christian woman Bibi ‘deserve death’
Tehreek-e-Labbaik has called for the death of the country’s Supreme Court judges responsible for overturning the death sentence of a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.
“The patron in chief of TLP, Muhammad Afzal Qadri, has issued the edict that says the chief justice and all those who ordered the release of Asia deserve death,” party spokesman Ejaz Ashraf said, as cited by the news agency.
The party also demanded Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government be ousted following the court’s order.
Religious leaders had also demanded the ouster of the head of Pakistan’s military, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, accusing him of acquiescing to Ms. Bibi’s release. Soon after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Pir Muhammad Afzal Qadri, another prominent protest leader, urged army generals to revolt against their top commander.
The military said Friday that it had nothing to do with Ms. Bibi’s release. “The armed forces hope that this matter is resolved without disruption of peace,” Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, the army’s spokesman, was quoted by state-run media as saying.
The TLP, founded in 2015, is known for widespread (often countrywide) street power and massive protests in opposition to any change to Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
The TLP party came into existence, and subsequently rose to fame, after the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Salmaan Taseer, an outspoken secular governor of Punjab Province who had campaigned for Asia Bibi’s release and for changes in the blasphemy laws
In October 2017, the government of Pakistan controversially changed the language in its 2017 elections bill. The Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan and its leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi strongly opposed the new language, and demanded the resignation of Pakistan’s Minister for Law and Justice Zahid Hamid, who had changed the law.
The TLP held a large protest against the controversial amendment, stopping traffic at the Faizabad Interchange at first, which then led to further protests across the country. The party led a three-week sit-in protest that paralyzed the entire country including Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.
At least six protesters were killed and 200 were injured when police unsuccessfully tried to disperse the sit-in, the protest had already spread out nationwide.
That protest forced the resignation of the federal law minister Zahid Hamid and paved the way for the group to poll more than 2.23 million votes in the July 25, 2018 general election, in what analysts called a “surprisingly” rapid rise.
What did the Supreme Court say?
Asia Bibi, a Christian who spent eight years on death row under Pakistan’s divisive blasphemy law, had her conviction overturned on October 31 by the Supreme Court. She was convicted in 2010 under the blasphemy law after she was accused of insulting the Prophet.
The Supreme Court judges in their verdict said the prosecution had “categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt”. The case was based on flimsy evidence, they said, and proper procedures had not been followed.
Blasphemy laws have often been used to get revenge after personal disputes, and that convictions are based on thin evidence.
The Supreme Court while acquitting Asia Bibi pointed out: “Sometimes, to fulfill nefarious designs the law is misused by individuals leveling false allegations of blasphemy.
“Stately, since 1990, 62 people have been murdered as a result of blasphemy allegations, even before their trial could be conducted in accordance with law. Even prominent figures, who stressed the fact that the blasphemy laws have been misused by some individuals, met with serious repercussions. A latest example of misuse of this law was the murder of Mashal Khan, a student of Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, who in April 2017 was killed by a mob in the premises of the university merely due to an allegation that he posted blasphemous content online.”
The Supreme Court also mentioned another instance of the misuse of the blasphemy law. The court said: “Reference may also be made to the case of one Ayub Masih, who was accused of blasphemy by his neighbour Muhammad Akram. The alleged occurrence took place on 14th October 1996, the accused was arrested, but despite the arrest, houses of Christians were set ablaze and the entire Christian population of the village (fourteen families) were forced to leave the village. Ayub was shot and injured in the Sessions Court and was also further attacked in jail. After the trial was concluded, Ayub was convicted and sentenced to death, which was upheld by the High Court. However, in an appeal before this Court, it was observed that the complainant wanted to grab the plot on which Ayub Masih and his father were residing and after implicating him in the said case, he managed to grab the seven-marla plot.
“The appeal was accepted by this Court and the conviction was set aside.”
At least 1,472 people were charged under the law between 1987 and 2016, according to the Center for Social Justice, an advocacy group. Of those, 730 were Muslims, 501 were Ahmedis — a sect that is declared as non-Muslim in Pakistan — while 205 were Christians and 26 were Hindus.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws open to misuse
Those opposing the apex court’s verdict on Asia Bibi should go back to re-educating themselves on what Islam is truly all about , says Tariq A. Al Maeena, a Saudi journalist. Commenting on the violent reaction to the acquittal of Asia Bibi Al Maeena said:
“Alluding to the fact that the arguments involved insults on both sides, with Jesus Christ’s name thrown in, the court stated: “Blasphemy is a serious offence, but the insult of the appellant’s (Asia Bibi) religion and religious sensibilities by the complainant party and then mixing truth with falsehood in the name of the Holy Prophet [PBUH] was also not short of being blasphemous.
“The verdict did not sit well with many fundamentalists who took to the streets to vent their anger. From burning rickshaws, cars and lorries to bringing traffic — including ambulances on their way to hospitals — to a standstill, the protesters vented their rage and not just at the court.
“Posters of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan were burnt. Some even threw shoes at Imran’s pictures.
“These religious fanatics, as I see them, are the worst examples of what Islam truly is. Far from respecting the verdict, they have become a law unto themselves and have set about creating mayhem and anarchy, something that Islam specifically does not condone. With very little understanding of the true meaning of Islam, these hordes are no different from those ignorant non-Muslims who deride or insult Islam. The actions of these Pakistanis are just as despicable.
“It was during the military dictatorship of former Pakistan president General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s when blasphemy laws were radically introduced in the legislature, including punishment by death for those charged with defiling the sacred name of the Prophet (PBUH).
“Over the years, it became evident that the blasphemy law was used more and more for political gain, to settle land disputes or political rivalries than as an agent to maintain sanctity.
“The law became a way to challenge someone’s status and a powerful tool to intimidate anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim. Most of these cases reveal personal vendetta or are often used by extremists as a cover to persecute religious minorities.”
(Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America)