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Imran Khan pressured on Asia Bibi Blasphemy case by Islamists

November 13, 2018

LAHORE, Pakistan It was already an eventful first 100 days for Prime Minister Imran Khan, the onetime cricket star who broke the mold of Pakistani politics when he took office in August.

But as pundits and analysts weigh in on his government’s start, Mr. Khan is facing pressure from an unanticipated source as Islamist groups react with fury to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the death sentence of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy eight years ago who is now in hiding.

The prime minister is under competing pressures over whether to allow Ms. Bibi to leave the country, something that could provoke religious extremists even more.

Mr. Khan, an outsider in Pakistani politics long dominated by a few political clans, won office on an agenda of change and addressing the country’s failing economy, with a strong emphasis on eradicating corruption. But the blasphemy furor is just the latest incident that seems to have knocked the government off its game.

Protests by Muslim religious parties over the high court’s verdict late last month brought the country to a standstill for days, forcing the government to agree to the demands of the far-right party Tehreek-e-Labbaik to place Ms. Bibi on a no-fly list.

Critics say Mr. Khan is failing his first big test to stand up to hard-liners, which they argue is vital to transforming the country.

“Imran Khan’s government is a lion only in words,” said Rubina Saigol, an independent political analyst based in Lahore. “Otherwise, it is the most mousy administration we have ever seen. Having used the issue of blasphemy in the election campaign himself, now the past is coming back to haunt him.”

Mr. Khan defended the country’s blasphemy laws while on the campaign trail this summer. Even so, he has railed in the past against the lack of action against hard-liners who he said incited killings for blasphemy. That stance has provided hope to many inside and outside the country that his government a departure from the dynasties that have ruled Pakistan for decades might finally get serious in tackling extremism and terrorism.

On Saturday, in that spirit, Mr. Khan defended the court’s decision.

“There will be no compromise on the decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan,” the prime minister said. “If a government does not stand by the decisions of the court, the country cannot survive.”

Critics said Mr. Khan’s rhetoric does not match his actions.

After local cleric Qari Muhammad Salaam, who accused Ms. Bibi of blasphemy nine years ago, filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to review its decision, Mr. Khan agreed to keep the Christian woman in the country until the court completes that review.

He has also declined to prosecute protesters who called for the death of Ms. Bibi and the judges who freed her. The protesters blocked roads and shut down city centers after Mr. Khan said he would crack down on them.

“It is a blot on Khan’s regime that such a surrender happened at such an early stage of his office,” said Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association. “Khan has mirrored the supine nature of his predecessors. Extremists continue to hijack the nation.”

The government was in danger of losing control of the narrative after apparently doctored photos of Ms. Bibi already outside the country, including one of a supposed meeting with Pope Francis, started appearing on the internet.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry slammed what he called “fake” pictures on social media and told The Associated Press on Monday, “People can even be killed because of such fake postings.”

The pictures were widely circulated on social media in Pakistan and shared on several local journalist groups, even a police and a media group, the AP reported.

Under siege

Religious minorities especially feel under siege, he said. Pakistan is 97 percent Muslim.

“For Pakistani Christians, every changing prime minister has proved to be of no consequence with regards to protection of their rights,” said Mr. Chowdhry. “We can only expect status quo or further decline.”

Analysts also note that Mr. Khan has a history of catering to Islamists despite his rhetoric seeking to modernize the country’s politics.

Last year, when Tehreek-e-Labbaik protesters blocked the capital of Islamabad for weeks after lawmakers proposed a slight change to a religious oath for parliamentarians, Mr. Khan attacked the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, saying he was unfit to rule. Hard-liner support was key to his election in August.

During his own rule, Mr. Khan rescinded the nomination of an Ahmadi Muslim to a top economic advisory position after protests by hard-liners, who view members of the revivalist sect as apostates.

“It appears that a government that came into power because of a compromise with religious hard-liners will continue to make compromises to stay in power,” said Reema Omer, a legal analyst at the Pakistan International Commission of Jurists.

According to the 2018 report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Pakistanis have prosecuted about 100 blasphemy cases since 2011, and nearly as many people are serving prison sentences for blasphemy. In a country that was founded largely on the strength of its self-image as a home and haven for Muslims, approximately 40 of those convicted of blasphemy are serving life sentences or awaiting the death penalty.

In one high-profile case, Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old Christian girl with Down syndrome, was accused of burning pages of a Koran in 2012. Officials dropped the charges and released her, but her community harassed her and threatened her family with violence. After months of hiding in Pakistan, she relocated to Canada with her family in 2013.

Ms. Bibi’s case, which has become a consuming national controversy, dates back nine years. While working as a farmhand, she became embroiled in an argument with two Muslim women who refused to drink water from the same bucket because she was Christian and hence “unclean.”

She was accused of defaming the Prophet Muhammad during the quarrel, an offense that carries a mandatory death penalty under Pakistani law. A trial court gave her the death sentence in 2010, and lower appellate courts upheld it.

But the South Asian nation’s top court freed Ms. Bibi from prison on Nov. 7 and ordered her flown to “a safe place,” officials said.

Ms. Bibi’s attorney, Saiful Malook, who is seeking refuge in the Netherlands after threats to his own life, described his client as a “courageous woman” who is “full of life.”

“I have never met a such a strong woman in my life. Despite spending nine years in prison, leaving behind two daughters and still being this strong,” said Mr. Malook.

He added that Ms. Bibi had three older stepchildren as well. “Had I been in her place, I would have broken in six months and probably committed suicide.”

In a video message last week, Ms. Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, called on Western governments to help her find a new home. People accused of blasphemy face danger every day in Pakistan, he said.

As they should, said hard-liners.

“It is not about one blasphemer under the garb of court ruling, the government will let many more blasphemers leave the country,” said Osama Jataoi, a law student and a supporter of Tehreek-e-Labbaik leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi. “The Koran is clear that punishment for blasphemy is nothing but death.”

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