For lawyer Saif-ul-Malook (62) the Asia Bibi-affair far and wide is the most delicate matter with which he had to deal during his time as a jurist. „As I took this affair upon me, it felt as putting on a bomb jacket. To declare oneself a lawyer of the most well-known suspect of blasphemy in Pakistan stands equal to suicide.”
He looks energetic, the lawyer of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian who in 2010 was sentenced to death. After the Supreme Court had recalled the judgement at Wednesday, Malook left his home country at Saturday. Shortly after he had spoken to the international media at The Hague Monday afternoon, he takes some time for an interview.
Malook, short in stature, looks with a penetrating view from above the rim of his glasses. “Just pose questions to me, I have time, even if it takes me three, four hours. The fact that I am now in the Netherlands is part of my vocation, for if I hadn’t been a lawyer, I wouldn’t have been here. I have lost my freedom, but not my self-regard and not the respect from the Western world for my role in the Bibi-affair too, as I hope.”
Malook became involved in the affair on the position of Christians in his country after the murder on the governor of the province of Punjab, Salman Taseer, in 2011. This politician plead for abolishing the notorious blasphemy laws. In Pakistan, these are applied frequently to condemn Christians and other minorities because of doubtful accusations.
Malook was a public prosecutor at the time of the murder of the governor. “The murder shocked our country. Taseer was even murdered by one of his bodyguards, who should have protected him.”
After the murder on Taseer a legal vacuum emerged in Pakistan. The bodyguard was imprisoned. Although his guilt was clear, the judicial authorities initially didn’t dare to start a criminal case against him. Malook: „At that moment I stepped forward. Why? Justice needs to be done here. It can’t be allowed that lawyers, being paralysed by fear, have to permit radicals to play their own judges.”
Malook clung to the affair for eight months, which resulted in a death sentence for the perpetrator eventually. “Colleagues called me mad for leaping on the affair. Everybody reacted: “You are risking your life. Think about your wife and children.” The lawyer seems to be relaxed when telling this, but that’s only the outside appearance, he assures. „My tension rose, my blood pressure too. In those times I have seen the hospital many times from within, while I didn’t feel well.“
For the lawyer it was clear that he had to interfere with the Bibi-affair too as the appeal in the case was rejected by the court of Lahore in 2014. “Some colleagues said to me: if this affair ends up at the Supreme Court, only you can get her out.” Malook decided to present himself as a lawyer for Bibi. „In a later stage my expenses were paid by foreign NGOs. However, at the moment that I took up this trial, this was not in question. I have not presented myself, while the affair would be profitable to me, but because I regarded it a challenge to do my best for someone whose life has been ruined.”
Looking back Malook thinks that the Asia Bibi-affair has gotten out of hand while the Christian woman in the first law suit against her, in 2010, didn’t have a good defense. „She got an ‘added lawyer’, someone who is paid by government, while the family has no money. Restitution for that aid amounted between 2000 and 3000 rupees. A first rate lawyer may have got her acquitted already in 2010, but that kind of person easily could charge one million rupees. That is priceless for poor people like Asia Bibi and her family.”
According to the lawyer, the condemnation of Asia Bibi by the court and later by the Lahore court „for 80 to 90 percent” due to „a bad lawyer. As regards the lower court the popular fury may have played a role for 10 to 20 percent, for which reason judges didn’t dare to vindicate Asia Bibi.”
Malook has worked four years on his defence in de Bibi-affair. „That was really a busy job, studying laws every day. Nobody expected that my apology would have some effect, but the Supreme Court took it very seriously, which turns out clearly from it’s sentence, that comprises 56 pages and really takes apart all previous sentences as well as all kind of assertions of Muslim leaders pleading that Asia Bibi deserves capital punishment. Evidence in her case is simply insufficient.”
The day of the acquittal passed very unreal for the lawyer, he admits. „Really nobody expected the recalling of earlier judgements in the trial. The absolution of Asia Bibi came unexpected for everybody. After the sentence it didn’t even take half an hour before the fury of Muslim radicals exploded.”
For Malook it was immediately clear that the popular fury would hit him. „In prison, Asia Bibi, surprisingly, was safe. Nobody of the government cared about me or my family.” From Wednesday until Friday the lawyer stayed on diplomatic posts of the United Nations, France and Italy. „UN-representatives more or less forced me to take the plane and to leave Pakistan last Saturday. For your safety, they explained. However, I would have preferred to take Asia Bibi with me.”
Authorities in the West have summoned for acquittal of Asia Bibi for years. Have these calls had impact?
„All this political pression hasn’t had any effect. In Pakistan government and court are separated. Judgers are independent, they don’t let themselves be affected by diplomacy. A lawsuit can only be gotten under way by disproving the evidence. That is exactly the manner it has been gone in the Bibi-affair.”
Malook is visibly irritated by questions on the effect of political pression on Pakistan, as he bangs his fist on the table. „Tell the world that someone who maintains that the Supreme Court has changed his mind by political pressure, strips of my honour as a lawyer. If politicians or diplomats wish to take the credits for their efforts in the Bibi-affair, they are allowed to do so, but they have to realize that in a next case similar to this one no Malook will stand up.”
Raising his voice: „Do you think that I have stuck my neck out for my pleasure in order to flee to the West and then to tell my countrymen: look, how pretty great out I have it here? That has never been my intention, on the contrary, I am being lived. The future of my wife and of my daughter who lives at home and of me is in tatters.”
Is there an arrangement if Asia Bibi would be released in the next days?
Malook shifts his position a little bit. On a more quiet tone: „She will be absolved, surely. IGOs are caring for her. The UN-representative in Pakistan has assured me of that by a phone call at Monday. Asia will be transferred with her family to a country where she will be safe. Where that will be, I don’t know. „You have to care for yourself”, IGOs said to me: “leave Asia Bibi and her family to us.”
How about your own safety? Where will you stay in the next time? Do you know?
„For the time being I will stay in the Netherlands, but I probably will visit a couple of other European countries in the next months. However, I feel like being left to myself. Last Saturday I was dropped by someone of the UN on the airport in Pakistan and I had to see for myself. Via a friend who is working at the Pakistani security service, I managed eventually to get a few armed security guards around me, who have guided me until the window of the plane. I only had my clothes which I wore at the sentence at court at Wednesday and I have been wearing them until now. When I finally arrived in the Netherlands, nobody of the Dutch government was waiting for me.”
Can you still sleep quietly?
„Sure. I have a quiet conscience. At Schiphol Airport I was picked up by Peter van Dalen, member of the European Parliament, and by people of the Persecuted Christians Aid Foundation (in Dutch: Hulp Vervolgde Christenen, HVC). HVC is now giving shelter to me, but I really worry about the people whom I left behind: my wife, my daughter of age twelve, the staff of my big house. How should they make it?”
How long do you expect to stay out of Pakistan?
„If I consider the mentality of the people, even from many lawyers, I do not regard it prudent to return the coming two years. Many lawyers are infected by radical Muslim ideology too. They blame me for having spoken up for someone who has been accused of blasphemy. Even when things will have calmed down and I when I could return to my country, I should be cautious every day. I could not come and go where I would like to during the rest of my life.”
Malook is worried how Asia Bibi will cope to live with her husband and children after a potential acquittal. „Her husband has five children from a previous marriage, who are adults and live their own life. About them I don’t worry that much, but Asia and her husband are simple folks, they hardly can read, write and speak English. Together they have two children, from whom one is mentally disabled. Regardless in which country they will end up, it won’t be easy to care for them in a good manner. This family cannot live without the aid of others.”
What can the Netherlands do for Asia Bibi and her family and for you?
„Please tell the authorities, no, request them if they could do something for them as well as for me and my family. Ask them if they are willing to do that.”
Saif-ul-Malook was born on July 11 1956 in de Pakistan city of Lahore. In 1976 he studied for a short time in Germany and in that period he also visited the Netherlands. His father obliged him to continue his study of law in Pakistan. In 1976 he graduated and took up a position of lawyer, later as a public prosecutor. In that role he brought Mumtaz Quadri, the murderer of governor Salman Taseer, to justice, in 2011.
Since 2014 Malook has been working as lawyer again, now in one of the most sensitive affairs that ever have been on in Pakistan, the one against the Christian Asia Bibi. In 2010, she was sentenced to death penalty, as, according to Muslim women a year before, during a quarrel, she would have defamed the name of the prophet Mouhammed.
Malook is married and is father of three daughters. His wife, who is a professor of mathematics, and his children are still in Pakistan.