By Zubeida Mustafa
HOW much is a human life worth in Pakistan? Not more than peanuts, given the impunity with which people are being killed in this benighted country of ours. The state’s failure — or lack of will — to protect the life of its citizens is at the root of this tragedy.
In this context, I am reminded of two women — one dead, the other on death row. One was a dear friend. The other is a stranger whose community has been my benefactor. I owe my education to Christian missionaries who gave me knowledge and taught me, by example, to respect and be tolerant of all faiths.
Perween Rahman and Asiya Bibi have nothing in common except that they are symbols of our quest for justice and sanctity of life in a society that thrives on hate and violence.
Perween Rahman and Asiya Bibi are symbols of our quest for justice.
Perween, director of the Orangi Pilot Project, Research and Training Institute, was shot dead on March 13, 2013, as she was returning home from work. Her killers have yet to be apprehended. The case filed in the Supreme Court is dragging on. But even in her death she continues to remind us that oppression must be resisted. That is what she was doing when she took up the cases of the wretched dwellers of the urban goths which skirt Karachi.
Perween managed to get 1,063 of them regularised which gave title to the land to those living on it. She had filed 1,000 more applications that are pending as the regularisation process has been halted. It is not known why and no one asks.
The Sindh police, true to its wont, has not been very helpful. With some ‘wanted men’ killed in strange circumstances, the case is being described as a blind one and difficult to solve. It would have been closed had the Supreme Court not persisted. At its initiative, a joint investigation team has been set up though it has yet to make headway. At times diversionary tactics are used to take away the focus from the land mafia and its political backers who, many believe, were irked by Perween’s work. The court has mercifully kept the pressure on the investigators.
Asiya Bibi’s case is different from Perween’s but it is just as important. She is one of the 37 prisoners who are on death row in Pakistan on charges of blasphemy which she denies. Is Asiya Bibi really guilty? The laws are such that the miscarriage of justice in blasphemy cases is quite common in the country.
Blinded with rage, the bigots have murdered 62 ‘alleged blasphemers’ extrajudicially since 1990, without the completion of the legal process. The latest to suffer this fate was a couple, brutally murdered last week by a mob near Lahore.
Asiya has been in prison since 2009. A Christian and the mother of five, one of whom is a special child, she has become the victim of the evil forces which operate behind the scenes.
An argument with some women on drawing water from a well led to a rumpus that caused the police to be called. Blasphemy charges were levelled against her and in 2010 a lower court handed down the death sentence. This was upheld by the Lahore High Court last month.
Asiya’s case has received much publicity. She is vulnerable for multiple reasons: gender, poverty and faith. She does not have strong legal aid either because the extremists have pre-empted an honest and competent legal process in blasphemy cases.
Women’s Action Forum was spot on when it expressed its fear that this may be a case of settling personal scores and reminded the state of its “first and foremost duty to protect the life and liberty of its citizens especially those who are powerless to defend themselves”. Constitutionally, every citizen has the right to a fair trial under the due process of law.
Asiya Bibi will appeal to the Supreme Court and again it will fall to the judiciary to protect the right to a life of dignity of a citizen — the right Perween Rahman fought for on behalf of others.
The judiciary bears a heavy responsibility, given the failure of the other organs of the state. If the judiciary pursues the case in earnest and succeeds in baring the culprit, Perween can become a catalyst of change in our decrepit system.
If Asiya escapes the gallows with the support of the court, she could usher an age of rationality in the madness that has overtaken us. These cases are important because behind each incident of this kind there are insidious, evil forces at work. Their identity is masked by their front men — who pull the trigger or level blasphemy charges. They are the real threat lurking in the shadows and often shielded by the police. They need to be exposed, be they the vested interests who were antagonised by Perween’s work in the goths or the bigots in the mosque who incite mob frenzy to intimidate religious minorities.