Asia Bibi v. The State: Problems of Evidence and Procedure in Pakistan

Guest contributor Imran Ahmed comments on the Pakistan Supreme Court decision for Asia Bibi v. The State. The Pakistan Supreme Court’s decision to acquit Asia Bibi of blasphemy charges brought forth questions about evidence, judicial independence, procedure, and the state’s authority in matters of law and religion.

The Supreme Court ruling in the case against Asia Bibi on the charge of blasphemy is an important judgment spanning controversial issues relating to both the particular case in question, and the law the accused is said to have breached – Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code. That law which mandates the death penalty for those who insult the Prophet Muhammad.

The verdict addresses a number of complex historical, political, theological, and legal threads. The judgment traces the present iteration of the law to its colonial foundations, comments on the political significance of the law, rationalizes the severity of the punishment for blasphemy, connects the law to the judges’ understanding of Islamic legal, spiritual, and theological traditions, nevertheless highlights the misuse of the law, and reassesses the problems and contradictions in the evidence presented before the Court in this case.

While it has been hailed as a historic decision, the case leaves a number of questions ostensibly unanswered. The ruling acknowledges the rampant abuse and misuse of the law, but it offers little guidance as to how to remedy the problem other than by affirming the state as the true and exclusive dispenser of justice in cases of blasphemy. This move does little to stop or deter mob violence, vigilantism, and the persecution of religious minorities.

Moreover, the wheels of justice cycle slowly in Pakistan. The substance of the case is built upon the testimony of prosecution witnesses and an extra-judicial confession made by Asia Bibi. The testimonies proved conflicting and the confession, drawn under coercion, and were therefore deemed unreliable.

If the glaring inconsistencies apparent in the evidence were noted at the onset of the trial, perhaps the case need not have dragged on as long as it did for Asia Bibi, who had spent eight years on death row prior to her acquittal. As Section 295-C continues to endure, just how to collect, address and analyze the evidence in such controversial and politicized cases while protecting the vulnerable and preventing potential miscarriages of justice remains open and without clear resolution.

Imran is a PhD candidate in History at the University of New England. His research interests lie at the intersections of religion, law and politics in late-colonial India and contemporary Pakistan. His work on the constitutional politics of Islam in Pakistan appears in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies and The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.