You have to hand it to Al Jazeera America; they have the guts to send reporters to one of Pakistan's most backward districts to investigate one of the diciest topics you can bring up in polite conversation there: its draconian blasphemy law, the subject of a two-part package.
Published late last week, the first piece talks about the six years that have passed since Aasia Bibi, a Christian from the Punjab province, was thrown into prison. She is the only woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, and in spite of international appeals to release her, she’s essentially rotting there. When Al Jazeera sent a reporter to Aasia's hometown for an update, some of the interviewees were so hostile, she fled the area in fear for her life. A second piece, also based in Punjab, talks about the killing of a Christian couple last November by a mob that falsely claimed they were burning pages of the Quran. The headline brings up echoes of the American South by calling the murders “lynchings” although the couple in question were actually burned to death in a kiln. It starts thus:
KOT RADHA KISHAN, Pakistan -- Walking through the quiet, empty streets of Chak 59, patrolled by stray dogs and the odd buffalo, one finds it difficult to tell whether the village is inhabited at all.
It is striking how silence can envelope a life, so as to all but erase it. Or, in this case, two lives: Shama and Shahzad Masih, a young Christian couple accused of blasphemy in this hamlet 31 miles from the big city of Lahore, but deep in the wilderness that dominates Pakistan’s Punjabi heartland.
On Nov. 4, 2014, Shama and Shahzad (most Christians in Pakistan are known only by their first name) were killed by a mob, stirred up by false allegations that the couple had desecrated the Holy Quran, at the brick kiln where they lived and worked for the previous 18 years.
The mob first beat them with sticks and fists before dragging them to the kiln furnace to set them on fire. Witnesses say one or both of them were still alive as they burned.
In a blow-by-blow account of mob violence reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, the husband dies first. The wife, who is five months pregnant and holding her 1-year-old daughter, resists but cannot fight off her attackers. After managing to pass off her daughter to the safety of a relative, she too dies. The reporter goes to the village where this all happened and interviews witnesses, few of whom wish to be named as they are afraid they could die too from an angry mob. These are the kinds of stories that are truly difficult for a Western reporter to get. The reporter who covered this story was a male freelancer from Islamabad. Only a native speaker could get so much detail on this story
The reporter who covered the following story was a female freelancer from Karachi. It starts thus:
In 2009, Aasia (many Christians in Pakistan are known by their first name) was plucking falsa, a kind of berry, in the fields when she got into an argument with a group of women working beside her. They were Muslim, and Aasia, Christian. The women refused to drink water from the cup that Noreen had touched, contending it was unclean. In the heat of the quarrel, they said, Noreen made blasphemous remarks against the Prophet Muhammad, a charge that can lead to the death penalty in Pakistan.
Asma and Mafia, sisters who each go by one name, as some do in parts of Pakistan, were witnesses to the alleged incident. They reported the altercation to the village cleric, Qari Saalam, who filed a police report against Aasia on charges of blasphemy five days later. State vs. Aasia Bibi was heard in a lower court in the nearby city of Nankana Sahib, and in November 2010, Aasia was found guilty and sentenced to death. Now, the former daily wage laborer and mother of two remains in solitary confinement on death row in the women’s jail in the southern Punjab city of Multan.
Her case has drawn widespread criticism, and calls for her release have come from as far away as the Vatican; international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have championed her cause. Aasia’s case is just one of hundreds in Pakistan based on the infamous blasphemy laws, which carry with them a virtually mandatory death sentence or life imprisonment and, activists say, are often used as cover to settle personal disputes, especially with members of religious minority groups.
And now transcripts of her trial, previously sealed and recently obtained by Al Jazeera America, raise further questions about how Aasia’s case was handled by the court. There are numerous and serious inconsistencies in the witness accounts provided by the prosecution; the cleric who brought the case against Aasia wasn’t even present during the alleged incident; and her legal counsel appears to have been incompetent.
What sets this series apart from others are the English transcripts of Aasia’s court appearances and testimony that appear on the site. The story first gives a depressing history of the blasphemy law in Pakistan and of some unsuccessful attempts to overturn it (government officials trying to do so have been assassinated). Then it goes into the inconsistencies in the testimony against Aasia. Then it interviews her lawyer, who admits his life is in danger as well for simply defending a religious minority. During her time in jail, Aisia has written a memoir. The reporter adds, near the middle of the story:
None of (the people interviewed) witnessed the confrontation in the berry fields. The cleric — who was the plaintiff in the case — was away and could not be reached by telephone. The sisters have since married and left Ittan Wali. Some interviewees appeared hostile on questioning, and this reporter had to leave the area hastily for fear of jeopardizing her safety.
Can't say too many of us have reported on issues so volatile that we had to flee for our lives. Reporting on the lesser-known alleys and byways of the Islamic world is where Al Jazeera America really shines. Sadly, Al Jazeera it doesn't have an Urdu-language service for Pakistan. That's who really should be reading these stories.