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The non-reform of Pakistan's blasphemy laws tells a wider story about Zardari's failure to foster true democracy

The case of Aasia Bibi, a Christian farmhand who was sentenced to death in Pakistan, teaches us how difficult it is to bring law, democracy and an end to extremism to the country
Ali Dayan Hasan
30 December 2010

LAHORE--- As the world celebrated Christmas, Pakistan’s beleaguered Christians cowered in fear. Baying for the blood of a Christian woman unjustly convicted under the country’s abusive and discriminatory blasphemy law, Islamist extremists held country-wide protests on Christmas Eve and have yet more planned for the New Year and beyond.

On November 8, Aasia Bibi, a Christian farmhand from Pakistan’s Punjab province became the first woman in Pakistan to be sentenced to death for blasphemy. Denounced widely, the conviction also horrified key members of the government. President Asif Ali Zardari ordered a ministerial review which concluded that the verdict was legally unsound and sought a presidential pardon for her. The government expressed intention to amend the blasphemy law. Pakistan’s democracy, it appeared, was coming of age.

But like much else in Pakistan, nothing is quite what it seems.

On November 26, Pakistan’s law minister ruled out any change to the blasphemy law under his watch. The same day, Zardari appointed a hard-line cleric to head a powerful body that determines whether the country’s laws are in conformity with Islam. Then on November 29, in a clear case of judicial overreach, a provincial court barred the dithering president from issuing a pardon anyway. Finally, on December 30, the government publicly reneged on a manifesto commitment to review discriminatory laws, announcing in a policy statement that it had “no intention” to repeal or amend the law and that it “regards safeguarding “namoos-i-risalat [sanctity of the Prophet Mohammad] as its responsibility and believes in it.” In effecting a U-turn on the issue, Zardari has betrayed his ruling Pakistan Peoples’ Party’s (PPP) self-proclaimed liberal, egalitarian ethos. When Sherry Rehman, Zardari’s former information minister and co-author of the PPP’s election manifesto, proposed legislation in parliament to amend the blasphemy law in November, the President reacted by seeking to curtail the right of his party’s legislators to table private members’ bills at all and used the policy statement to categorically disassociate the government from Rehman’s move.

Hopes of reprieve dashed, cheerless and fearful for her life, Aasia Bibi will remain imprisoned.

Zardari’s dithering over Aasia Bibi is in sharp contrast to his resolve in May when he used his constitutional authority within hours to pardon interior minister Rehman Malik, convicted for non-appearance in two corruption trials.

Smelling blood, Islamists have gone on the rampage. Supported by sections of the media, they have offered head money to anyone who kills Aasia Bibi and issued death threats to opponents and critics of the blasphemy law.

Admittedly Zardari’s government finds itself in a tight spot. In July, devastating floods swamped one-fifth of Pakistan, displacing 20 million people and causing billions of dollars in damage. Reeling from relentless suicide bombing attacks by Taliban groups, controversial US drone attacks in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, skyrocketing food and fuel prices, and an insurgency in Balochistan province, the fragile civilian government has struggled to cope.

Compounding government woes is the emergence of an independent judiciary as a political power center. Since the March 2009 restoration to office of Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, illegally ousted under military rule two years earlier, the court has engaged incontroversial incursions into the constitutional domain of the legislature and the executive. The judiciary has entertained frivolous challenges to Zardari’s election, to the 18th constitutional amendment which this year restored Pakistan to aparliamentary democracy and engaged in unwarranted intrusion in administrative matters. As the pardon fiasco illustrates, it is now also making common cause with radical Islamists. Instead of reinforcing democracy, the courts are exacerbating the crisis of governance and damaging the fragile edifice of constitutional rule.

The media dare not scrutinize judicial conduct for fear of overbroad “contempt” proceedings or military excesses because it is terrified of abusive intelligence agencies. But it is free to criticize civilian authorities. Consequently, it propagates a shrill Islamist nationalist, pro-military, anti-Western discourse. In this tense, hate-filled atmosphere, Zardari is everybody’s favorite whipping boy and democracy is likely to be the fall guy.

Nevertheless, by allowing Aasia Bibi to become a pawn in a turf-war with the judiciary and with Islamists, Zardari has not just endangered her life. He has compromised the credibility of his government, marginalized sane voices in his party and made life even more precarious for persecuted minorities.

Pakistan’s evolution into a strong rights-respecting democracy is critical to global security. Hence, the international community is right to insist that constitutional rule must prevail. And expectations of a transitional democracy in a praetorian state rife with militancy must be tempered by reality. But equally, Pakistan’s international patrons need to send Zardari a clear message that his stated commitment to human rights and democracy must be demonstrated by the political choices he makes.

Fighting extremism is not just about militarily defeating the Taliban, but about departing from the sectarian ideology and oppressive legal frameworks that embolden militants. Zardari canachieve this by empowering those who are willing and able to confront the Taliban and its supporters meaningfully in the battle of ideas. That he finds the conviction to do so is not just in Zardari and Pakistan’s interest, but in the world’s.

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