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Asia Bibi’s Case: a Battle for the Soul of Pakistan

Asia Bibi’s Case: a Battle for the Soul of Pakistan

Julia Bicknell analyses the roots and implications of Asia Bibi’s blasphemy case. 14/11/2018

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I was once in a mass street demonstration in Pakistan. Thousands and thousands of men swept past me chanting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ (‘Long Live Pakistan’). I was a reporter for the BBC and Daily Telegraph; it was the early ‘90s. With an official literacy rate of about 60%, but in practice probably nearer 30–45%, crowds form quickly in the country. Especially when the charge of blasphemy is invoked.

That’s what happened to 45 year old mother–of–five Asia Bibi after a blisteringly hot summer’s day, in a June 2009, when the fruit–picker was sent to fetch water for all to drink. Two sisters who were fellow–workers criticised her, as a Christian, for touching and thereby ‘contaminating’ the water so they as Muslims could not now drink it, and challenged her to convert to Islam. She refused, asking “Are we not all humans?”

Asia (whose name is, in fact, Asia Noreen – Bibi is a respectful term for a married or older woman in Pakistan) headed home after work that day, and the two women headed home too.

As far as Asia was concerned, the brief argument was forgotten.

She carried on going to work, picking berries, for the next four days. She didn’t know that the sisters had gone to the village imam, and reported the incident.

I was told by Asia’s family spokesman, (who I met – with her husband and daughter – in London recently), that the imam then broadcast from his mosque loudspeaker that she had said something blasphemous against the Prophet Muhammed. 

Five days after the incident, Asia was again at work when, suddenly, the Muslim women raised a commotion. Asia was forced back to her home, where local men beat her up and badly abused her. Her children saw all this: the daughter I met, Eicham, now 18, was 9 at the time. Shortly after, surrounded by a threatening, thousand–strong mob (I was told), Asia was alleged to have ‘confessed’ to her blasphemy – in the argument in the fields five days before – at what was later described as a ‘village council’.

The police eventually arrived and took Asia into custody, ostensibly for her own ‘protection’. But then she was charged under Pakistan’s Penal Code, clause 295–B and C (the first woman to be charged under these clauses).

The First Information Report filed with the police was by the local imam, who hadn’t even been there when the women had quarrelled. Nevertheless, the charge went to court. 

In her first trial, the investigating police superintendent testified that the argument broke out over the drinking water, and was not about the Prophet or the Quran. The sisters also gave contradictory accounts.  The trial court judge nonetheless convicted Asia Bibi and gave her the death penalty in October 2010.

Asia’s lawyers appealed to the Lahore High Court. Pope Benedict XVI appealed to the Pakistani government for clemency. The then–Governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, went to meet Asia in prison and prepared a petition for mercy, which he had intended to submit to the President of Pakistan.

Before he could do that, his own police guard killed him on 4 January, 2011 for his support for Asia and his characterization of the blasphemy laws as “black laws.”

Two months later, the only Christian member of the Cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, was killed. Bhatti had also supported Asia and sought to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which are disproportionately used to settle personal scores and pressure religious minorities.

The death of Shahbaz Bhatti was one of the inspirations for me to leave the BBC in 2012 to start a niche news agency, World Watch Monitor (WWM), to focus on reporting the under–reported story of the global Church under pressure for its faith. I had heard him speak at the annual UK conference of Christian Solidarity Worldwide the year before his death.

After these two high–profile assassinations, poor, illiterate Asia Bibi’s situation has become a test case through which the battle for the soul of Pakistan is playing out: will it be ruled by Islamist extremist elements threatening mob rule, or will it adhere to the rule of law and the principle of justice for all?

Asia’s case has dragged on for years because almost all of the eligible judges have been too scared to be the ones to decide on her appeal. And with good reason. They have seen their colleagues killed after such rulings, especially in favour of Christians in other blasphemy cases.

The Supreme Court judge who did hear her appeal could have saved risking his skin and delayed it until his retirement next January: he is extraordinarily brave, as is her defence lawyer Saif ul Malook.  The latter insisted he’s forced into temporary asylum in the Netherlands, and would return to Pakistan if needed, now the imam has petitioned for a judicial review of the decision.  

Anticipation was high that Asia’s Supreme Court appeal would have been heard in October 2016. But after she’d waited a year to learn this (last) appeal would be allowed (and then another year), on the very morning it was due, one of the three judges set to hear it said that he could not. He might have a conflict of interest; he’d been a judge of the case against the guard who killed Taseer, Mumtaz Qadri. So it was postponed again.

Qadri’s hanging in February 2016 had brought similar mass demonstrations to those seen recently: many see him as a cult hero. His death prompted the launch of the political party which now spearheads the violence, forcing new Prime Minister Imran Khan to do a deal with it. Asia Bibi, finally free from prison, is forced into hiding somewhere in Pakistan.

Millions of ordinary Pakistanis support Asia Bibi; they know the Christian minority (around 2–3%) is disproportionately represented not only in blasphemy cases, but also in the sewerage and sanitary work industries (around 70%, according to recent figures). This practice dates back to the pre–partition Hindu caste system of the ‘untouchables’ doing society’s ‘dirty work’: this stigma was at the root of Asia Bibi’s plight. 

It is this issue that UK parliamentarians such as Lord Alton are trying to tackle. He points out “Pakistan receives an average of £383,000 in British taxpayers’ money every day…and yet it tramples on the rights of minorities, on the ideals on which [Pakistan] was founded and on the rule of law”.

The Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Pakistan, Rehman Chishti, a long–time campaigner for Asia Bibi, leads a call for the UK to offer her asylum – although she’s already received firm offers from at least Italy and Canada. (However, others point to the 2016 murder of an Ahmadi Glasgow grocer and say she could never be truly ‘safe’ here).

Over 230 Parliamentarians globally, “aware that a review of the Supreme Court verdict could take years, leaving Asia…vulnerable to mob violence” have petitioned Imran Khan, questioning “whether political interests will prevail” and pointing out that “nations will be less likely to invest in Pakistan if the rule of law is undermined”. 

In the midst of it all, Asia’s daughter Eicham is determined to become a lawyer to help people like her mother; may she succeed. 

Image by A M Syed under a shutterstock licence, for editorial use only. 

Supporters of the (TLP),religious political party, chant slogans during a sit–in protest following the Supreme Court decision on Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, in Lahore on November 01,2018.

 

Julia Bicknell

Julia Bicknell

Julia Bicknell is Executive Editor of World Watch Monitor, which reports the stories of Christians around the world under pressure for their faith. Prior to this, Julia spent more than 30 years with the BBC – as a radio and television newsreader, reporter and producer.


@juliabicknell 

Posted 12 November 2018

Christianity, Freedom of Religion, Global Politics, Liberty

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