AMSTERDAM—For almost nine years, the name of an illiterate peasant woman in Pakistan came to symbolize the brutal intolerance that exists in a nation where blasphemy is a capital crime. Asia Bibi, also known as Assia Bibi or Aasya Noreen, was sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 after she squabbled with some of her Muslim neighbors while picking berries and they accused her of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
Year after year, human rights organizations, presidents, prime ministers, even Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis tried to intercede on her behalf. The governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province visited her in jail as part of a campaign against the country’s blasphemy law. But to no avail. The courts upheld her conviction. The governor was murdered.
Despite mounting threats on his own life, Bibi’s attorney Saif ul Malook continued to represent her until, finally, Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted her in October. She was freed but went into hiding under heavy government protection. Malook left the country and is now keeping a low profile in the Netherlands, where he may be granted political asylum.
“I'm happy to die rather than keeping my mouth shut,” Malook told The Daily Beast over the phone in an exclusive interview.
Malook's involvement actually began with the case of the murdered governor, Salmaan Taseer, a businessman and liberal politician struggling against the currents of religious fanaticism that run very strong in Pakistan. Taseer believed the blasphemy laws were used to intimidate and persecute religious minorities, and visited Bibi in prison to underscore the injustice of her situation. One of his bodyguards, who belonged to an elite police unit, decided that was reason enough for Taseer to die and gunned him down.
Malik Mumtaz Qadri shot Taseer in the back with at least 27 rounds from his police weapon, then put it down and allowed himself to be arrested by the other bodyguards. When he claimed that he murdered the governor because of Taseer’s opposition to the blasphemy law and visit with Bibi, Qadri was hailed as a hero by many of the country’s zealots, and initially treated with leniency by the courts.
Malook took the thankless job of prosecuting Qadri. Eventually he was able to win a conviction. But when Qadri was hanged in 2016, an estimated 100,000 sympathizers turned out for his funeral.
After that case, taking up Bibi’s cause was for Malook a natural segue.
It had started in 2009. During a small break doing farm work, Bibi offered to share a bowl of water with two fellow farmhands. But then things quickly spiralled out of control. The two Muslim women refused to share with a Christian and, according to the court papers, they told her she should convert to Islam. When Bibi refused, she was accused of making some offensive remarks about the Prophet Muhammad. Blasphemy! An angry crowd gathered and she soon faced charges that would escalate to her death sentence.
Over the years, people in Europe and the United States had been sensitized to the global as well as local dangers posed by fanatics denouncing supposed blasphemers. Author Salman Rushdie spent years under police protection in the United Kingdom after publication of his novel The Satanic Verses in 1988. When a newspaper in Denmark published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005, riots erupted all over the Muslim world and the editors and cartoonists were threatened. Then, after the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of Muhammad, a couple of jihadists murdered most of its staff one morning in Paris in January 2015.
All this fueled international sympathy for Asia Bibi and anger at those who would hang her. But, still, she languished in prison.
Most lawyers in Pakistan don’t want to take cases like this. But Malook says that his basic sense of justice was offended. “Why should I shut up? I'm not saying something bad, I'm saying human rights should be respected,” Malook told The Daily Beast. “The minorities in Pakistan should not be falsely prosecuted and the government must take the very steps needed.”
“In the first court in Pakistan, the district court, usually nobody can defend an accused person because these mullah people are so powerful they fill the courts and don't allow you to properly defend your client,” Malook explains. “Asia Bibi was a poor, helpless woman. No lawyer in Pakistan is likely to indulge in such cases, because this means you have to leave the life and liberties you have known behind you and putting your life in fear. But they are helpless and powerless and somebody has to stand for them. So I stood for them.”
Malook says his battle is not against Pakistan or even its government, as such, but with the radical Islamist elements. That requires some courage, as the system, according to Malook, is firmly in the grip of radical clerics and their followers who intimidate authorities.
“The police should make honest investigations, without fear of the radicals and mullahs with their street power,” says Malook. “The judges have to be very, very strict in these trials.”
But the risks are high. After Bibi was acquitted at last, supporters of the Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik took to the streets demanding the supreme court justices who overturned her verdict be killed by their “cooks and servants.” The crowds were being egged on by fundamentalist clerics like the recently arrested Khadim Hussein Rizvi.
The government traditionally has been wary about intervening against such people. But Imran Khan, the new prime minister elected in August, might change that. Khan sharply criticized the protests against the Bibi decision, calling them incitement for political gain and saying they were doing Islam a disservice. He also warned the extremists not to “clash with the state.”
Ever since Malook prosecuted the Qadri case, he has been living in hiding and under strict police protection in Pakistan. The decision in the Bibi case has come at an even higher price for the Malook family, because this time he had to flee Pakistan, leaving his family behind. The death threats from the fundamentalists forced his wife and daughter to remain in police custody back home.
Malook ended up in the Netherlands because he was invited to come over by a Dutch NGO, Stichting Hulp Vervolgde Christenen, the “Foundation Support Persecuted Christians.” They contacted Malook after he had taken the Bibi case and they financially supported the cause.
“In a phone call with Malook when he was still in Pakistan, when it became clear he would be forced to leave the country, we invited him to come over,” says Jan-Dirk van Nifterik, the director of HVC. The organization got in touch with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Malook came to stay under the so-called “Shelter City” program, which allows human rights defenders temporary residence in The Netherlands. “For the moment I believe he has the intention of staying here,” says van Nifterik.
Malook says he is now determined to change his country from the outside. “People in the legal system in Pakistan have to be trained, that's what I'm planning.” For the moment he's moving around a lot. “I've been to England, Paris and Frankfurt. I'm telling people about this case and what we can further do to reduce these dangers in the future.” Malook wants to go to the United States by the end of this month, where a tour of lectures and debates is set up at different Universities, colleges and schools.
As much as the Asia Bibi case highlights human rights issues in Pakistan's streets and courts, Malook says the Asia Bibi case also signals something else: the Pakistani government’s efforts to tackle the tidal wave of extremist movements in the country through its legal system.
“Of course things are changing in Pakistan.” Malook says. “I think when the government will stand on its own feet and will not let anybody take the law into their own hands, that things would be improving.”
That involves a lot of internal, systemic reforms in Pakistan, a process which Malook believes can be enforced through international support: “If we all work together, the Western world and the Americas and we speak in one voice, it is possible to make further change come about.”
It would help if his choices are seen back home as a winning bet, so other lawyers can be tempted to take on sensitive cases relating to the blasphemy law, too. “I have become a symbol, in the case of Bibi at least, that one can fight all alone in this country and still win.”
Malook is in no rush to return home. “I'd like to go back tomorrow, but maybe I can go back in a year or two,” he says hopeful. Most of all, he misses his family. “We are not made to live apart, Pakistani families stay together all their lives.”
As for his client Bibi, she’s doing OK, Malook says. “Asia is now in protective custody in Pakistan. She is safe for now, but she will have to leave the country if she wants to survive. To my latest information they are negotiating a deal with the Canadian government.”