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A Death Sentence Over a Cup of Water?

The case of Asia Bibi has become a symbol of ancient hatreds in Pakistan. The country's Supreme Court has the chance to put things to rights.

Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan at a rally demanding that Asia Bibi be hanged. (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

“To pardon or overturn the verdict against Asia Bibi, self-confessed blasphemer is the commission of blasphemy itself and is crime against Islam and the Constitution of Pakistan.” So read a handout distributed by the hardline Islamist group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan in rallies all over Pakistan last week. The group threatened to paralyze the country with protests if the mother of five were to be exonerated by Pakistan’s Supreme Court, members of the group dispatching to all the major areas of the country.

Going by the laws of evidence and due process, Asia Bibi should be freed rather than put to death as ordered in 2010. Stemming from a dispute over a drinking cup, the case has huge evidentiary holes, violations of due process and factual fabrications. And as it has proceeded to the supreme court in Pakistan, it has become an emblem of how longstanding hatreds and vague laws have enabled minority persecution.

The story began in the small village of Katanwala, in an area known as Nankana Sahib, which stands 30 miles from the Pakistani city of Lahore. There, on the afternoon of June 14, 2009, four women working in the fields got into a terrible argument over a drinking cup. Asia Bibi, the only Christian among them, allegedly grabbed the communal cup and drank from it before the other three could do so. The others claimed she had “contaminated” the cup and that they should have been permitted to drink first. The argument escalated and more fieldworkers gathered. In an interview to BBC Newshour, Bibi’s daughter recounted how she ran to get her father. When they returned, however, Bibi had already been taken away. Within days a blasphemy case had been registered against her by the village cleric, who additionally claimed she had “confessed” to the crime.

The question of drinking order is a vestige of the Hindu caste system that has lingered in the area even after most of the population converted to Islam over a hundred years ago. Christians, believed to be converts from the lowest classes of Hinduism, continue to be treated as untouchables in parts of Pakistan. For high caste Hindus, using the same utensils as someone from a lower caste represented contamination or impurity. It seems  the women in the field with Asia Bibi on that ill-fated June day believed this as well.

The case seemed tailor-made for hardline parties looking to mobilize communities against religious minorities. Similar recent blasphemy cases have been brought against Shia Muslims and members of the Ahmediyya sects. The country is rapidly transitioning from a mostly rural to mostly urban milieu. With caste and status in flux, clinging to some imagined superiority based on religion can be an attractive prospect—even if it only confers the privilege of drinking from a cup before a Christian.

The blasphemy law itself has been criticized even by Islamic scholars, who have pointed to its vaguely worded text. But the law has become the signature issue of hardline groups who oppose any change they see as weakening the Islamic nature of the Pakistani state. Tehreek-e-Labbaik have deployed themselves as watchdogs and vigilantes, supposedly policing the country against blasphemers. In another incident several months ago, they staged a protracted sit-in at one of the major intersections in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city, paralyzing traffic for months, because the government had surreptitiously removed the name of the Prophet Muhammad in the oath of office. The government capitulated, saying that the altered oath had been a “mistake.”

The new government installed after the election this summer has also shown susceptibility to hardline Islamic pressure. A little over a month ago, Prime Minister Imran Khan removed Princeton economist Atif Mian from his Economic Advisory Council because the latter belongs to the Ahamdiyya sect, which does not believe that the chain of prophets ended with Muhammad. Mian’s expertise in the area of debt and credit restructuring is sorely needed as Pakistan lobbies for an IMF bailout. But Khan, who already expressed his support for the blasphemy law as he wooed Islamists during his election campaign, removed Mian from his position.

With a public that has increasingly championed the death penalty and cheered its resumption following a seven-year moratorium that ended in 2015, and a Prime Minister beholden to the very people who want her dead, Asia Bibi can only rely on the Supreme Court itself. The lawyers and judges have all faced intimidation from the hardliners who are issuing threats, insisting that those who exonerate Asia Bibi will be blasphemers themselves. The three male justices deciding her case heard arguments from both sides on October 8, and while they seemed interested in the way the witness statements contradicted each other, and that the male cleric who had filed the case was not actually present when the altercation took place, there were few clues as to which way the court leaned. At the end of the proceedings, the court said it would “reserve” the verdict. Pakistani media were told to refrain from discussing the case, a directive most of have adhered to in recent days.

Aside from the threat of protests, a more sinister shadow hangs over the proceedings. Two politicians—the former Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, and a Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti—were gunned down in 2011 for supporting Asia Bibi’s innocence.

The Supreme Court has made bold rulings before, for example the one in 2017 that ended Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s time in office—he was subsequently convicted of corruption. And there is genuine concern in Pakistan about the international reaction to putting a woman to death over a dispute centered on a drinking cup.. 

Asia Bibi’s case may have begun as a macabre mélange of class, caste, and religious persecution, but it has quickly become a gendered narrative as well. Most if not all Tehreek-e-Labbaik members are men, as is Khadim Rizvi, its leader. Asia Bibi’s case would represent the first case ever of a woman put to ever be executed. The power now lies in the hands of the all male bench of the Supreme Court that heard her case, as the two male lawyers presented their arguments.

The country’s Supreme Court has shown it can stand up to politicians. Now is its chance to show it can stand up to the mob, and the deeply ingrained prejudices mobilizing it. At the heart of the case is, quite simply, a woman—and a large number of people who want her dead.