donderdag 6 december 2018

Feast of Falsehood Following the Field of Falsa

Translation from my Dutch blog 

These are tense days for Asia Bibi. This Pakistani woman was sentenced to death in 2009 for insulting the prophet Mohammed. The death sentence was initially upheld on appeal in 2014, but on October 31, 2018, the Supreme Court in Islamabad acquitted her. News of the acquittal sparked massive, angry demonstrations in Pakistan. Her lawyer fled to the Netherlands. Bibi herself would also already be on her way to the Netherlands, or perhaps to another country that wants to grant her asylum, but a little later this was contradicted again. According to reports from the Pakistani government, she has been released and has gone into hiding in her own country.

The Supreme Court ruling is 56 pages long (1). Based on the text of the ruling, I will tell her story for a good understanding - to begin with for myself. The verdict is a mix of Islamic law and 'Western values'. The first pages are filled with extensive quotations from the Quran. The verdict confirms that insulting the Prophet is a serious crime, punishable by death, but also mentions tolerance as a basic principle of Islam, as well as freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Islam guarantees freedom of religion, the judges insist, and only the state can prosecute anyone, under the law and with a fair trial.

The judges acquitted Asia Bibi of the serious charge because witnesses contradict themselves and each other and often deviate from their original statement during cross-examination. There is great doubt whether their story is true.

Like the US Supreme Court (which has nine judges), the three Pakistani chief justices are allowed to take their own position, a “concurring” or “dissenting” “opinion” (2). Judge Nisar writes the verdict (p1-34), which the other two co-sign. He comes to her acquittal in an argument of 50 points. But Judge Khosa goes one step further. He agrees with the statement, but after that writes a completely personal argument of 26 points (p35-56), in which he gives the witnesses a firm slap. Not only is there great doubt whether and if so how Asia Bibi has spoken insultingly, but the witnesses have insulted her Christian religion. The judge wrote: “Blasphemy is a serious offense, but insulting the religion of Asia Bibi and mixing truth with falsehood in the name of the Prophet is also blasphemous.” He quotes Shakespeare's King Lear: the accused is "more sinned against than sinning".

* Quarrel in the Falsa field *

On Sunday 14 June 2009, Asia Bibi works on the field of farmer Muhammad Idrees in the village of Ittanwali. She is about forty years old and has lived in the village with her family all her life. It is a Christian family and as far as she can remember there has never been any conflict with the Muslim population. Asia is uneducated, there is no church in the village and she doesn't really know much about religion. She is married and has two daughters. Her husband is a poor worker. During the harvest she herself works as a day laborer on the land. That day she picks Falsa, along with about thirty other women. Falsa (Grewia asiatica) (3) is a berry that is common in South Asia. The edible fruit is just over an inch in size and turns purple to black when ripe. While picking, the women get thirsty. Asia Bibi offers to fetch water for them. But two women won't accept water from a Christian. An argument ensues about this and strong words are spoken. The two are also called Bibi: Mafia Bibi and Asma Bibi. They are sisters to each other but not related to Asia. Mafia and Asma follow Koran lessons from the wife of the imam and they complain to her about the incident. Then the imam intervenes.

* Accusations *

Imam Qari Salaam is the one who is making a complaint to the police. He only does that after five days and that is one of the reasons why the Supreme Court and especially Judge Khosa doubt the story. In Indian and Pakistani law, the First Information Report (FIR) (4) is very important. The more hours and days that pass between the event and the report, the more implausible it becomes. (5) The witnesses have had plenty of time to fabricate a story.

Before the imam goes to the police, a public meeting is convened in the village. The stories about this vary widely. The witnesses speak of 100, 200, 250, 1000 or 2000 people present. That is difficult in a house of 5 marla or 125 m2. (6) The meeting would have been at the house of Asia's neighbors or three houses further or then again somewhere else. Asia came on foot or was picked up by motorbike. There is even disagreement about date, time and duration. The meeting would have lasted only fifteen minutes or several hours. One witness stated that the meeting started at noon on Friday, June 19, 2009 and lasted until at least half past two, after which Imam Salaam immediately went to the police station in a neighboring town to file the charges. Judge Khosa finds that statement very implausible, because Salaam and the other imams present from the wide area could never be back in time for the Friday prayer they were supposed to lead.

At this meeting, Asia Bibi confessed to the crime. She is said to have said that the Quran is a human book, that the prophet Mohammed married Khadija only to rob her wealth, that insects crawled out of his mouth and ears on his deathbed. She would later explain to the police and the judge that she gave in under pressure from the crowd, but that she knows so little about Islam that she could not have even invented these insults. She may have used some strong words during the fight on the field, but she pleads "innocent" on the charge of blasphemy. She swears to the Bible, but does not come with witnesses to defend her.

The three witnesses against her - Imam Salaam and the sisters Mafia and Asma Bibi - did not speak to the police and judges about the argument that preceded the alleged insults. The court calls on farmer Idrees as an independent witness. He didn't attend the fight, but he heard about it. None of the other women on the field are called up. Apart from the two sisters, there is therefore no one who can confirm the alleged blasphemy.

*Fight against profanity*

Pakistani Chief Justices confirm that insulting the Prophet carries the death penalty. In 1923, Mahashe Rajpal released a pamphlet containing insulting remarks against the Prophet. This sparked a movement to ban the book. In response, in 1927, the British government introduced an article 295-A into the penal code, which prohibits insulting founders and leaders of religions. This did not please everyone, as not long after, Rajpal was murdered. The perpetrator, Ilm-ud-din, was sentenced to death, but is seen by many Muslims as an exemplary follower of Mohammed. (7) After independence in 1947, Article 295-C was added to the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC): anyone who insults the holy name of Prophet Muhammad will be punished with death or life imprisonment. Asia Bibi has also been prosecuted on the basis of this article. In 1991, a Sharia court ruled against the "way out" offered by this article, namely life imprisonment as an alternative to the death penalty. That would be contrary to fundamental principles of Islam. The Pakistani government did not oppose this ruling and it has become case law that insulting the Prophet is actually punishable by death.

The Supreme Court points to the efforts of the Pakistani government to also internationally combat insults against religion. On March 26, 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) passed a resolution, on a proposal from Pakistan, calling on countries to pass laws against defamation of religion. The Pakistani authorities monitor and, if necessary, block the content of Facebook, Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Amazon, MSN, Hotmail and Bing. Judge Nisar lists this list to substantiate that no one can insult the Prophet with impunity.

* Vigilante justice*

On the other hand, the verdict emphasizes that no one is allowed to take the law into their own hands. It is not up to an individual or the masses, there should be no parallel justice, false accusations are out of the question, an accused is innocent until his crime is legally proven, everyone has the right to a fair trial, only the government can prosecute and convict, within the limits of the law and the Constitution.

Judge Nisar cites several examples of vigilantism to show what not to do. Since 1990, 62 people have been killed in Pakistan on blasphemy charges. In 2017, student Mashal Khan was murdered by an angry campus crowd for allegedly posting offensive content on the internet. In 1996, Ayub Masih was arrested after being accused of blasphemy by his neighbor. While he was imprisoned, the entire Christian population of 14 families was expelled from the village, their houses set on fire. Ayub was shot in court, survived, and attacked again in prison. He was acquitted on appeal, when it turned out that the neighbor had made the accusations in order to seize his land.

*Respect for Christian faith*

Judge Khosa calls for greater respect for the Christian faith. According to him, the allegations against Asia Bibi are either completely made up or she only freaked out after her religious feelings were hurt “just because she believed in Jesus Christ”. According to the Quran, a Muslim's faith is not complete until he believes in all the messengers of God, including Jesus Christ and the Bible. He quotes Surah Al-An'am verse 108 from the Qur'an: "And do not mock those whom they call on instead of Allah, so that they don’t scorn Allah out of enmity without knowledge". He also mentions the treaty of Prophet Mohammed with the monks of the monastery of Saint Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai in 628. Mohammed instructs his followers to defend the Christians, not to impose any obligations on them, nor to compel them to fight or leave, maintain their judges and clergy, and respect their churches. The Christians are not asked to change their faith and the treaty guarantees their rights to property, work, safety and freedom of religion. According to Judge Khosa, this treaty applies to all Christians, including today, and all Muslims must adhere to it.

* Feast of Falsehood *

Khosa gives Imam Salaam and the sisters Bibi a hard slap on the fingers and indulges in a sentence full of 'F-words': “It appears that after an altercation in the field of Falsa a feast of falsehood has followed ”. The witnesses acted contrary to Surah Al-Baqarah verse 42: “Do not mix the truth with lies and do not hide the truth when you know it”. 

* Mix of values ​​*

To us Westerners, the verdict reads like a curious mix of values, also a mix of lyrical and legal texts. I have tried to articulate it here with as little commentary as possible.


Mst. Asia Bibi (appellant) versus The State etc. (respondent)

Uitleg in Wikipedia:
m.u.v. (5)

(5) How to lodge a FIR? (India) (i-Pleaders, India)

(6) Marla (1 marla = 1 rod = 25,2929 m2) 

Photo credit:

Asia Bibi's photo has been posted in various media, I could not find any information about the photographer, publisher or copyright. If it becomes available, I will adjust it accordingly.

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