October 31, 2018
This could have been an open and shut case.
The complainants had quarrelled with Asia Bibi, and could be reasonably suspected of having dragged her to the court out of malice.
The fact that a formal police complaint was lodged at least five days after the incident created further suspicions that evidence could have been fabricated.
And if that were not enough, some glaring disparities emerged in the depositions of different witnesses about the specifics of what happened when, where, and in whose presence.
As in many countries, Pakistan’s criminal justice system puts the burden of proof on the prosecution. It applies strict rules of evidence to ensure the case is proved beyond all reasonable doubt.
It was in this climate that a PPP leader and governor of its most powerful province – Punjab – Salman Taseer, was gunned down by one of his religiously inclined bodyguards in January 2011.
Why? Because he had visited Bibi in jail, sympathised with her and expressed a desire to reform the blasphemy law.
A couple of months later, Pakistan’s minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was shot dead for making similar remarks.
These incidents put Bibi’s case on the anvil of the religious lobby, with the anti-blasphemy vigilante groups vowing to draw her blood or that of the judges who would dare let her go.
But while lower court judges are less protected and more exposed to threats from vigilante groups – which is why most blasphemy cases end in convictions at the trial stage – a majority of the cases reaching the high court level are quashed, due to the absence of strong evidence.
The three-judge bench which acquitted Bibi comprised the sitting chief justice, Justice Saqib Nisar, and his designated successor, Justice Asif Khosa.
Justice Nisar is due to retire in January, and there was speculation he could have delayed the announcement of the verdict till after his retirement.
Instead, he has gone ahead and taken the deliberate risk of becoming a target of the vigilante groups.
(L’Observatoire des Avocats Facebook, 01/11/18)