Saif ul Malook is the lawyer who saved the Christian woman, Asia Bibi, from death row in Pakistan. He then faced credible death threats himself.
His talk addressed freedom of belief and the challenges faced by lawyers who represent the most vulnerable minorities and what the international community can do to support those at risk, particularly those accused of blasphemy.
This is a rough transcript the talk. You can listen to a recording of the talk in full using the link above.
The blasphemy law in Pakistan is a very stringent law which has been discussed throughout the world, and the world has been demanding its abolition. It became famous when a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was arrested and charged in 2009.
Asia had two daughters, one about eight who had severe mental impairment, and the other about nine. She was a field worker, picking fruit and working with 25-30 Muslim women. She was the only Christian woman working there, and in the whole village they were the only Christian family. Previously they had never had any problems and they had lived there a long time. One day when the workers were assembled to eat, Asia brought a jug of water for the group to drink. Two of the Muslim women said “we do not want to drink water from the hands of a Christian woman”, which created some friction between them. There is no record of what actually happened, but the courts have imagined the angry words that were exchanged. The Muslim women went to the pastor of the village and told him that Asia had abused the Muslim prophet Muhammad. After 5 days a case was brought against her and she was brought before the Mullahs and a crowd of about 1000 people and asked “have you abused Muhammad?” An uneducated woman, intimidated by all the lawyers and the crowd, she answered “yes”. The trial judge then recorded that she had made a full confession and sentenced her to death.
The case was referred to the High Court, who ruled that confession has to be made freely, not under duress, and that as she had been brought under duress and pressure, the confession could not be accepted. However, she didn’t have a good lawyer. When a witness makes a statement, the defence lawyer should cross examine them, challenging the major portion of their allegation, but he had never conducted a criminal case before and didn’t do this, so her appeal was dismissed.
She had no option then but to appeal to the Supreme Court. In Pakistan there is no right of appeal to the Supreme Court. You can lodge a petition and if you can convince them that a serious violation of the law took place in the High Court then they will consider the case. At this point Saif ul-Malook was asked by a Pakistani Christian leader to represent Asia Bibi and he filed a petition before the Supreme Court. Leave was granted in 2015 and ultimately in 2018 he won the case and the Supreme Court ruled, not that they were giving her the benefit of the doubt, but that the witnesses had lied and that the allegation brought against her was false. They also ruled that in future if there is a case where the death penalty is imposed and they find that witnesses have lied during the deposition, those witness will be tried and punished. There is a section of the Pakistani penal code which states that if you depose falsely in a case which entails the death penalty, you can be sentenced to 14 years of imprisonment. Since then the Supreme Court has ordered that in 3 murder cases, witnesses were found to have lied and are now under trial. This is the impact of the Asia Bibi case.
When Asia’s judgement was announced by the Supreme Court on 31st August 2018, the whole country was closed by the Islamists within 10-15 minutes, and Saif had to flee to the Netherlands on the advice of friends, as he was in imminent danger. He was awarded refugee status in the Netherlands and granted permanent residence within a week. When Asia’s review petition was pending, challenging the judgement of the Supreme Court, and fixed for 29th January 2019, Saif had to surrender his permanent resident status in order to return to Pakistan. He was able to get the review petition dismissed and Asia is now living with her husband and daughters as a free woman in Canada.
This was one of the most important blasphemy cases, in which the whole world stood with Asia, and it got a lot of publicity. The governor of the Punjab province of Pakistan, Salman Taseer, went to visit Asia in prison. When addressing the press outside the prison afterwards he said that the blasphemy laws were unjust and that he would take a petition to the president of Pakistan, who under the Pakistan constitution, article 45, is empowered to remit any sentence, even those issued by the Supreme Court. He said he would recommend to the president that he should remit her sentence and release her. This led to a big dispute; there were protest marches and a hue and cry by the Islamists and ultimately they issued a Fatwa – a death sentence – against the governor, that he had become an infidel as he was supporting a woman who had abused the Muslim prophet and anybody can kill him. One of his bodyguards, a policeman, in uniform and with his service issue weapon, fired 36 shots at him and killed him. Instead of condemning the murder, everyone in Pakistan – the lawyers, the intellectuals and the people – painted him as a hero who had come to rescue the respect of the prophet Muhammad. It was such a fearful situation that no-one would come forward to prosecute the murderer, and it was left to Saif to volunteer. The prosecution took 8 months and the policeman was given the death penalty, which was executed in 2016. He is now considered a saint, a large monument has been constructed, and he is becoming more and more popular.
There was a second Christian woman in Pakistan, Shagufta who, along with her husband, was sentenced to death on similar charges, that they sent two or three text messages that were disrespectful to the prophet Muhammad. They were arrested in 2013 and since then have been behind bars. Saif is now conducting their case in the Lahore High Court and is sure that within a few months he will be able to free them.
This is the situation now in Pakistan regarding blasphemy and regarding these two main cases.
Saif contends that there can be no religious freedom without economic freedom. His suggestion is for western nations to take thousands of young Christian Pakistani children, give them the best education available so that they can become professional people in medicine, science, law, etc. and then send them back to Pakistan. The main problem for Christians in Pakistan, he says, is economic poverty and educational poverty and they cannot compete with the rest of the people of Pakistan. If the whole world is fighting for the freedom of a few wrongly convicted people such as Asia Bibi it will not solve the problems in Pakistan. Nor would asylum resolve the problem. The only way to resolve the issue is to empower these people by giving them an education.
While the Supreme Court was waiting to release the judgement on the Asia Bibi case for three weeks, there were protest marches by the Islamists who were openly saying that they would kill the judges of the Supreme Court, kill the defendant’s counsel and anyone who facilitated the release of Asia Bibi. Pakistan has, since 2010, enshrined in law the right to a fair trial, but the popular view is that anyone who upholds this right against an alleged blasphemer is also guilty of blasphemy. This attitude is prevalent not only among the ordinary people but even among the legal profession. The Quran say time and again not to give false testimony, and in the words of the Prophet himself to the judges, it is much better to acquit 99 guilty persons than to convict one innocent person. So when the Supreme Court found that charges against Asia Bibi were false, that meant they were in violation of the Quran, in violation of the teachings of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, and in violation of the constitutional guarantees provided to the Pakistani citizen, so what is a defence lawyer doing wrong? But emotions are so high that reason does not prevail.
Many of Saif’s friends have tried to persuade him to stop this work, but his attitude is that it is better to die fighting for the disadvantaged than to live an easy life. He asks all of us for prayers of protection so that he can continue with his job.