Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Express and be damned!

The Freedom of Speech and Expression, by general inherence, is not an absolute fundamental right. Governments are free to impose restrictions in keeping with national security and integrity, friendly relations with other states, prevention of sedition and contempt of court. To what extent can a state impose curbs on the freedom of speech in the guise of a religious mandate couched within the tenets of blasphemy laws? Can a state cite the name of an invisible force to place fetters on the freedom of expression, at all? The question has considerable bearing on the very institution of theocratic states as being capable of continuing in today's world. Can the state and religion be one? Or can the law giver be the one to dictate his peoples' faith?

The issue has been around for long enough, now, having arisen during the birth of contemporary international law, where the Church was sought to be kept separate from the State, in a bold step that infused logic in the choice of religion. Despite the maturing of states in this directions, a handful of states retained their right to brandish the whip of power to decide the religious faith of its people. Theistic faith, even. You simply believe in the Almighty, or be damned for committing the offense of blasphemy. The state declares its laws in the name of the Lord. Very well. But what if some of its people decide not to believe in the Lord? Weren't they, according to the state's faith, created by the same Lord, too? Isn't the Lord benevolent enough to forgive those that evince disbelief in his name? But no. The state penalizes the non-believer with a death sentence. That's right. Let's send the blasphemous to do time with just the force he refuses to believe in. Oh no, I'm sorry. The blasphemous go to hell, from hell.

Aasia Bibi's is one such case. For having said things against Allah, a noose hangs close to her head, waiting to loop around her neck. In June 2009, Aasia Bibi, a labourer on a farm from the village of Ittanwali in Sheikhpura District, was asked to fetch water. She obediently complied, but some of her Muslim fellow workers refused to drink the water as they considered Christians to be "unclean". With that, some arguments ensued. There already was a running feud between Aasia and a neighbour about some property damage. After the incident, a few coworkers complained to a cleric, alleging that Aasia had made derogatory comments about Muhammad. A mob came to her house, beat her and the members of her family before she was rescued by the police. However, the police initiated an investigation about her remarks resulting in her arrest and prosecution under Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code. She spent more than a year in jail. In November 2010 Naveed Iqbal, judge at the court of Sheikhupura, Punjab, "totally ruled out" that there was any false implication, saw "no mitigating circumstances", and sentenced her to death by hanging. Additionally, a fine of a ridiculously high value was imposed.

Aasia's husband, Aashiq Fauji, who is also her brother-in-law (since Aasia is his second wife, his other being her older sister, by the tradition perhaps of Niyoga), presently plans to seek an appeal against the verdict before the Lahore High Court. Witnesses heard by the Pakistani court alleged that Aasia drank from the glass of two Muslim children who then stopped drinking, and that she then verbally abused the two, their religion, and the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The owner of the farm where the incident occurred forwarded the incident to the village Imam who forwarded it in turn to the village council. Aasia reaffirmed that she had uttered remarks against Muhammad and then restated her remarks in front of the council. She argued in defense of her remarks and made no attempts at an apology. The issue then went before the Pakistani Police and an FIR (First Investigation Report) was filed according to the newer reformed version of the “Blasphemy Law” under the government of President Musharraf. According to the reformed law, a senior police officer with at least the rank of “Superintendent of Police” was required to investigate the issue. Senior Superintendent of Police Anis investigated the FIR and Aasia again admitted to the comments and then discussed with other female prisoners while in custody that she was proud of having made her remarks.

During the trial, though she did not repeat her comments, she remained staunch in that she never denied uttering them. A team of 10 lawyers defended Aasia in a country where it is rare for someone of her economic status to be able to afford one. Many inmates of her village and almost the entire village council testified against her as to having heard her make the remarks and reaffirm them twice. The exact words allegedly used by Aasia, although central to the accusation, remain unknown, as under Pakistani blasphemy law to repeat them, even in accusation, would be to commit the same offence.

A mother of five, Aasia is now facing a death sentence under the Blasphemy Law and has been languishing in jail for one year. Aasia is reportedly the first woman to be sentenced to death for allegedly uttering blasphemous words against the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) after a dispute with Muslim women labourers. Aasia is a Christian, originally named Aasia Noreen, This, of course, is no praiseworthy milestone, nor a record worth any attention in the form of plaudits.

In a twisted turn of events, On January 4, 2011, at Kohsar Market of Islamabad, the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated by a member of his security team named as Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri in Islamabad. He bit a bullet reportedly for his comments on Aasia Bibi, while vociferously championing his opposition to the blasphemy law. Taseer was reportedly outspoken in his criticism of the law and the verdict in the Aasia Bibi case, and faced ghastly consequences for the same. Malik Mumtaz accepted responsibility for the murder. The Pakistani media was extremely critical in its denouncement of the murder, while wondering if there was some hidden hand with a hidden agenda couched behind the murder, which used Malik Mumtaz as a 'cloak to create political instability'. Following this event, in a bid to reinforce their stance, scores of Muslims rallied in support of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan.

To any rational mind, it seems confounding how there could be such blasphemy in the name of persecuting so-called blasphemy. Why should there be a different yardstick to measure each manifestation of discrimination? Does anyone see that Aasia had been wronged and discriminated against, by being deemed unclean for being a Christian, before she retaliated with the words she uttered? Why is the legal system so parochial in that something so fundamental to the crux of the case in itself is not supposed to be presented in court because simply uttering it is blasphemous? Why not confine every mouth, every mind to a ball and chain, and decide what to write, what to say, what to feel, and what to think?

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