A guilty prayer leader prowls the narrow, fetid streets of Ittanwali village in Nankana district.
At the forefront of a popular, polarising case, Qari Salam ostensibly regrets filing a blasphemy charge against an impoverished Christian woman, Aasia Bibi.
The source of his guilt – realisation that the case was not based on facts but on hyped religious emotions and personal bias of some village women.
Aasia has been languishing in Sheikhupura jail since a sessions court awarded her death sentence for insulting Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
Support from London
Qari, according to some of his close friends, was now thinking of not pursuing the case anymore and expressed his desire to some of his friends, only to find himself in a difficult situation when activists of a religious organisation ‘convinced’ him not to change his mind.
“We will chase her through hell … don’t worry about the money, hiring best lawyers,” Salam told The Express Tribune, quoting the son of Khatm-e-Nabuwat’s London chapter’s leader.
The leader’s son flew in to Nankana from London after hearing that Salam might not go to Lahore High Court (LHC) when the review petition against Aasia’s conviction is taken up.
Salam himself, however, denied he ever thought of backtracking from his stance.
“How can I change my mind,” he said. “I believe it will bring me a better place in heaven. It gives me pleasure, it is my pride,” Salam told The Express Tribune.
Salam said Khatm-e-Nabuwat had hired Mustafa Chaudhry as counsel to fight his case in the higher court, and were ready to go to an extent to seek death for Aasia.
Counsel seek bail
While bullets may have silenced Aasia’s lone supporter, former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, they have faltered in the face of the silent resolve of her counsel.
Despite death threats from religious right, Aasia’s lawyers are now planning to seek bail for her from LHC.
“Yes, we are ready to file a bail application and will be moving ahead with it in a couple of weeks,” said Rai Ajmal, one of the two lawyers who were Aasia’s counsel in Nankana court which sent her to gallows in 2010.
A review petition against the verdict filed by Rai, and a fellow lawyer Sardar Khan Chaudhry, is pending before the LHC and there are little chances that it can be taken up for at least another three years.
Rai said the LHC is still hearing review petitions filed in 2006-07, and judges are reluctant to use their discretionary powers to take up Aasia’s case on a priority basis due to its controversial nature.
Aasia’s review petition was filed in 2010 and, according to sources in the LHC, it will purportedly not be taken up before 2015, while Aasia languishes in jail.
Both Rai and Chaudhry appeared convinced that the top provincial court would rule in favour of a bail plea they were going to file if the decision was based on the evidence, and not religious sentiments on the streets.
Former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated last year by one of his security guards for raising his voice in favour of Aasia’s release and calling for a review of the country’s blasphemy laws.
The intensity of opposition by religious right forced the government to withdraw plans of reviewing the laws enacted by former dictator General Ziaul Haq.
The same religious fervour is expected to cast shadows on future verdicts in the case as well.
While he did not say anything explicitly, Rai said he did fear for his, and colleague’s life for pursuing a ‘very sensitive’ case that has evoked popular religious sentiments.
Aasia would have been acquitted by the Nankana court had the case been heard dispassionately, he said.
Threatening the lawyers
A neutral trial of the case seems to be a forgone conclusion though, in the face of opposition by religious outfits like Khatm-e-Nabuwat and Tehrik-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool.
Activists of both organisations, individuals closely associated with the case said, had been threatening not only the lawyers with dire consequences but also Salam for his purported backtracking on the case.
Convener of Hurmat-e-Rasool Maulana Ameer Hamza, also a top leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, denied that his organisation’s activists were threatening anybody to stop court proceedings in the case.
He refused to commit, however, that his outfit would accept if the LHC either acquit or grant bail to Aasia.
“What we say is that court proceedings must be respected … and after LHC there is the Supreme Court as well. We won’t let it go easily,” he said.