SAIF ul Malook, the lawyer who defended Asia Bibi who spent eight years on death row for blasphemy in Pakistan was named at the weekend as Secularist of the Year 2019 by the UK’s National Secular Society.
The award presented by the human rights barrister and NSS honorary associate Geoffrey Robertson QC.
Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging for allegedly insulting the Islamic “prophet” Mohammed in November 2010. Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered her to be freed in October 2018. It upheld her acquittal in the face of a petition urging its quashing in January.
Bibi, above, is now living in Canada, but a total of 40 people in Pakistan remain imprisoned on blasphemy charges or convictions. About half are serving life terms and half have been sentenced to death.
Malook represented the Christian woman from 2014 until the end of the legal process. He has faced death threats from Islamists in response, as have the judges who ordered her to be freed.
He is now handling another blasphemy case involving Shaghufta Kausar, who faces a possible death sentence in Pakistan over a text message that allegedly insulted Mohammed.
NSS Chief Executive Stephen Evans said:
Thanks to the National Secular Society for recognising my efforts to secure the acquittal of Asia Bibi. To fight blasphemy cases in Pakistan is putting one’s own and families’ lives at risk. The moral support from organisations such as the NSS has given me the courage to take the case of Shaghufta Kausar – another Christian woman on death row on blasphemy charges.
I assure you that I plan to continue my mission in providing legal aid to all blasphemy victims even in future regardless to the threat to my life.
Saif ul Malook showed courage that few of us would be capable of summoning when he decided to defend Asia Bibi. Without his willingness to risk everything to stand up for her, the death sentence she faced for so long might have been carried out.
His award should also stand as a testament to the many brave people who have defended Asia Bibi or challenged Pakistan’s cruel blasphemy laws – some of whom have paid with their lives.
And it should serve as a reminder that blasphemy laws are a theocratic outrage against freedom of expression wherever they exist. We urge the UK government to learn from the Asia Bibi case and do everything it can to hold countries which retain these laws to account for their violations of basic human rights.
At the presentation – part a conference titled “Reclaiming Religious freedom”, the NSS also gave a lifetime achievement award to its former President Barbara Smoker, 95, above.
The conference also saw Rachel Laser, the CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church And State, deliver a keynote address on religious freedom in America in the era of President Trump.
Guests at the event heard speeches and discussions on religious freedom’s relationship with freedom of expression, children’s rights and religious orthodoxy.