A Pakistani court sentenced Bollywood star Veena Malik and her media mogul husband to 26 years in prison for blasphemy. The court found their TV mock-wedding blasphemous because it was set to a devotional song about the wedding of the Prophet Mohammad’s daughter.
“The malicious acts of the proclaimed offenders ignited the sentiments of all the Muslims of the country and hurt the feelings, which cannot be taken lightly and there is need to strictly curb such tendency,” the 40-page verdict said.
The accused were not present at the trial, and the court arranged for a state lawyer to defend them.
Along with a TV executive and host, the famous couple have been ordered to surrender their passports and properties as well as pay a fine of nearly $13,000 for the offending program which set off a firestorm of controversy when it first aired in May. Many observers suggested that blasphemy accusations were part of a broader campaign to malign Geo TV, the country’s largest news channel. The independent network has long been the target of scorn from country’s religious lobby, military supporters, and business rivals.
Geo TV picked a tough fight in April when it accused the ISI, Pakistan’s powerful spy agency of shooting the influential talk show host, Hamid Mir. The channel was ordered off the air and fined $100,000 following complaints filed by the ministry of defense.
Malik, who lives with her husband in Dubai, claims that she is innocent and would never commit blasphemy.
“We are planning to return to Pakistan in December,” she said. “I have always been a person who faced troubles by looking it in the eye. I have faced highs and lows in my life. But I am sure I haven’t done anything wrong.”
The Bollywood actress comes with her own controversies which have been met with a combination of derision and eye-rolling from Pakistanis.
In 2011, she appeared nude on the cover of an Indian magazine with the letters “ISI” stenciled onto her arm. Malik sued, claiming that she was clothed on the set and that her photo was “morphed” to make her appear naked.
After a trip to Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, Saudi Arabia earlier this year, she said she “matured” and would be giving up acting and singing for good.
While she’s so far kept her word and turned her focus to her first child, some Pakistani commentators believe that the retirement announcement was just another antic for someone who has built a career on shock factor. One columnist wrote in Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper:
My point is that Veena has gone out of her way to create a spectacle out of everything she has put herself into. And she has done a good job, judging from the fame she has accumulated over the years. I don’t think there is anyone who would not know of Veena Malik. They might not have seen her pictures, shows or movies, but they would still know who she is and why she is famous.
In this case, it’s not fame that will save her but rather the limited purview of the court which ruled against her.
“Twenty-six years! Come on. Twenty-six years is a lifetime,” Malik said when the ruling came out, adding, “But I have faith in higher courts in Pakistan. When the final verdict comes, it will do justice to me. Nothing bad is going to happen.”
The case may not even have to make its way to a higher court to save Malik from jail time. That’s because court which ruled against her is a regional one. Its decisions don’t apply to the rest of the country. Similar blasphemy allegations have been registered against the four elsewhere, including in the cities of Islamabad and Karachi.
But such charges aren’t always mere theatrics. Blasphemy is a capital offence in Pakistan, and since the laws around it are open-ended, they’re often invoked to settle political scores and unfairly target minorities.
The case of Aasia Bibi is a prime example. The Christian farm worker was sentenced to death four years ago for blasphemy after some Muslim women who worked with her refused to drink from a bucket that she had touched. The ruling against her has been upheld by one of Pakistan’s top courts. Last week, her husband appealed for a presidential pardon to save his wife’s life.