ASIA BIBI AWAITS BLASPHEMY APPEAL RULING
The world is still awaiting Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruling on Asia Bibi, the Christian mother on death row for blasphemy. The court made a decision on Asia’s fate on Monday, but has withheld its ruling. Christians hope Asia will be set free, but Release warns that if Asia is released, she and her family will need protection against extremists taking the law into their own hands. Release hopes Asia will be granted asylum and has urged Pakistan to repeal its discredited blasphemy laws.
Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi is still having to wait for a ruling on her final appeal against a death sentence for blasphemy – after a panel of Supreme Court judges came to a decision on Monday, but postponed their ruling.
There was a media scrum outside Islamabad Supreme Court as the court reached a verdict but held back its decision as to whether Asia Bibi would be sent to the gallows or set free.
The decision to hold back the verdict could be intended to thwart reprisals from extremists, who have threatened to kill Asia and anyone involved in setting her free.
‘These are no idle threats,’ warns Paul Robinson, the CEO of Release International, which has long been campaigning for Asia’s acquittal. ‘Release is concerned for her safety and hopes that Britain and other nations will offer Asia and her entire family asylum.
‘It would be a tragedy if Asia, who has spent so many years on death row, will now be forced to live apart from those she loves, if indeed the Supreme Court decides to release her.’
According to Pakistan media, Asia’s lawyer, Saif Ul Malook, challenged the accusation of blasphemy filed against her by an Imam in the village of Katanwala.
The lawyer argued that the prayer leader had not actually witnessed the incident. According to the newspaper Dawn, Justice Khosa declared, ‘No blasphemous language was uttered in the presence of the prayer leader.’
Asia’s lawyer also pointed out that the statements of the women who complained against her were found to be contradictory.
He argued the investigation had been faulty and grounded in malicious intent. The lawyer insisted, ‘No blasphemous words were used at all.’
The Supreme Court is expected to announce its formal verdict at any time.
Asia Bibi has been described as Pakistan’s highest profile prisoner. The farm labourer has been on death row since 2010 accused of blasphemy.
On June 14, 2009, Asia was accused of uttering blasphemies against the prophet Mohammed – a charge she has always denied. She was later sentenced to death – the first woman in Pakistan to face execution for blasphemy.
The cry of blasphemy went up after a row with other labourers. Her Muslim co-workers refused to drink water she had brought for them, complaining that as a Christian she was unclean. Things became heated, and they later accused her of blasphemy.
Since then, Asia has been jailed, sentenced to death, a price has been put on her head and her family have been forced into hiding.
Militants have threatened to blow her up in prison, and a cleric has offered a reward of 500,000 rupees – about £4,000 – for the assassin who puts her to death. Others have been murdered for taking up her cause.
Militants assassinated a lawyer, a judge and two leading politicians for taking a stand against the blasphemy laws.
In 2011, Punjab governor Salman Taseer was murdered by his own bodyguard for calling for Asia’s release and for the repeal of the blasphemy laws. And within two months, the minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was also assassinated.
Asia’s is the most prominent blasphemy case in Pakistan. But many others have been targeted by these laws, and once the cry of blasphemy has been raised, lives are at risk. Extremists have murdered families and driven Christians from their homes. Even when the courts have dismissed the charges, Christians have been shot by vigilantes.
In October 2016, Pakistan’s Supreme Court adjourned Asia Bibi’s appeal against her death sentence, following the decision of a leading judge to withdraw from the trial.
That week, 150 Muslim clerics issued a fatwa warning the government not to release Asia, and threatening to kill anyone who helped any person accused of blasphemy.
Justice Muhammad Iqbal Hameed Ur Rehman stepped back from the appeal hearing. He did so on the grounds that he had earlier tried the killer of Punjab governor Salman Taseer who was murdered for opposing the blasphemy laws. Thousands poured out on the streets to hail Salman Taseer’s killer as a hero, showing his coffin with flower petals.
According to the Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad, since 1990 alone, ‘fifty-two people have been extra-judicially murdered for being implicated in blasphemy charges’. Some have been killed by their own prison guards.
Since 1987, upwards of 1200 people have been charged with blasphemy. The number of accusations soared from just one in 2011 to more than 100 in 2014. According to Human Rights Watch, upwards of 250 stand accused of blasphemy in Punjab province alone. A disproportionate number of those accused are Christians.
At least 16 others, beside Asia, are on death row.
Christians make up less than 3 per cent of the population of Pakistan, where Islamic extremism is spreading. During Easter 2016, a suicide bomber targeted Christians at a park in Lahore, killing more than 70. Most of the victims were women and children – and the majority were Muslims.
In March the previous year, suicide bombers detonated two devices outside churches in Youhanabad, a Christian area of Lahore, killing 15 and injuring 80.
‘Repeal these laws’
Release International, which supports persecuted Christians around the world, is pressing for Pakistan’s widely abused blasphemy laws to be repealed and has long called for Asia to be acquitted, set free and protected.
‘The blasphemy laws are being used to fuel the flames of intolerance. That’s why they must be repealed,’ says Release CEO Paul Robinson.
‘Pakistan must review every blasphemy case and repeal these discredited laws which target Christians and other minorities and are often invoked to whip up violent persecution.
‘Time and again, we have seen these laws invoked to destroy lives and encourage extremism.
‘All too often, even when the courts confirm a person’s innocence, vigilantes will take the law into their own hands and murder those who have been accused, often without a shred of evidence.
‘We call on the government of Pakistan to abolish the blasphemy laws and create a society where every Pakistani citizen is free to exercise their faith and live in peace with their neighbours.
‘To draw a line under this violent persecution will demand courage,’ says Paul Robinson. ‘It will take courage to do the right thing and draw a line through the law that underpins this hatred. The blasphemy law must be struck off the statute books. It must be repealed.’
Pakistan’s blasphemy law was created in 1860 by the British rulers of India to try to keep the peace between different religious groups. Pakistan inherited the law after its creation in 1947, but it was revived in the 1980s by the sixth president of Pakistan, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, to fulfil his agenda of creating a state ruled by Sharia (Islamic law).
Over the years, Release partners have visited Asia in prison and have helped provide financial assistance. Release International’s support has enabled Asia’s family to visit her in jail.
According to reports, Asia’s husband Ashiq has described his wife as, ‘Psychologically, physically and spiritually strong with a very strong faith.’
Release is celebrating 50 years’ of support for persecuted Christians. Through its international network of missions Release serves the persecuted in 30 countries around the world, by supporting pastors and Christian prisoners, and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles, and working for justice. Release is a member of the UK organisations Global Connections and the Evangelical Alliance.