This article is about some observations from inside the court room at the Lahore High Court for the case of Asia Bibi in Pakistan.
10/26/2014 Pakistan (TNS)– October 16. 10.30am. A court associate in a two-judge Lahore High Court appellate bench calls aloud, “Asia Bibi versus State!” and almost everybody in the small courtroom — more than a dozen lawyers, a few rights activists, and a few clerics — rise from their seats.
The court guard quickly moves outside the courtroom and repeats loudly “Asia Bibi versus State”.
The two sides of the counsels, no less than five on each side, along with associates, take their positions in a group form on the two sides of the rostrum where the two judges — Justice Anwarul Haq and Justice Shahbaz Ali Rizvi — are seated.
Justice Haq, observing the situation, asks: how many are representing this case?
He gets the answer in murmurs.
Those defending Asia Bibi include senior attorney Chaudhry Naeem Shakir, S.K. Chaudhry, and Tahir Khalil Sindhu, who is also a minister in the Punjab cabinet, among others.
Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry leads the complainant’s side, among others.
In the first 30 minutes, the two judges ask the counsels to recall facts of the case against Asia Bibi. That is, how the incident occurred, whether the procedure of investigation was correct, and some key statements. They then announced tea-break, calling the court again at 11.30am to listen to arguments from both sides.
The LHC appellate bench resumes after 30 minutes. By that time, a few clerics had also entered the court, quietly sitting along the wall, close to the complainant’s counsel. One of them, by looks in his 60s, with white beard and white shalwar kameez, sitting beside the complainant, started reciting darood sharif in a very low voice to “get the blessings of God,” he says.
In the two-hour argument, the judges give ample time to the defence lawyers. They also set aside extra-judicial evidences in the case, carefully listening to the flaws pointed out in the investigations and contradictions in the statements of witnesses.
Senior counsel, Shakir, starts his arguments, saying a Federal Shariat Court judgment — the court which maintained only death sentence under Section 295-C and abolished the previous option of life imprisonment — had equated the blasphemy death sentence with to Hadd which meant that a pious witness was required in such cases. He also raises the point that there is no independent corroboration of the two main witnesses — two sisters — by the prosecution, terming the allegation of blasphemy against Asia based on enmity and prejudice.
The defence lawyer points to the delay in lodging of police case after consultation with local cleric and contradictory statements of witnesses.
The judges repeatedly ask him as to why didn’t the defence counsel cross-examine the two main witnesses at all in the trial court. “There is not even a single question by the defence in trial court to these two sisters who are the key evidence and witnesses to this charge,” Justice Haq says. “There is even no request from the defence side to call for psycho-analysis or psychological examination of the charged person.”
SK Chaudhry, the lawyer in the trial court representing Asia, has little to say in reply to the judge’s questions.
Ashiq Masih, husband of Asia, standing behind his lawyers and quietly listening to the arguments is trying to get a sense of what was going on in the proceedings, mainly in English language. Justice Haq says the bench had adjourned all other cases that day due to the sensitive nature of Asia’s case and urges on the defence counsel to argue more. “We are ready to listen to the arguments till evening and we want to decide it today,” he says.