Ten years after fake blasphemy charge, Pakistani Asia Bibi reunited with family

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Asia Bibi’s daughter Eicham was 9 when she saw her mum badly beaten and in front of a mob charged with “blasphemy” against the Prophet Muhammad. For over 9 years, Eicham has visited her on death row in Pakistan. Finally, today, now a young woman at 18, Eicham and her older sister appear to have been reunited with their mother – and her husband Ashiq Masih – to start a new life in Canada.

Asia Bibi had been on death row for blasphemy, after offering drinking water which she, as a Christian, was considered to have made “unclean” by her touch. She got into an argument over this, which later provoked a false charge of blasphemy, to which she had allegedly confessed in front of the same mob.

Many Pakistani Christians – who are about 2% of the population – are children of converts to Christianity from the downtrodden “untouchable” Hindu tribal caste – they are sometimes called “chuhra” (a modern equivalent might be something like “toilet cleaner”). Their families converted in the late 19th to early 20th centuries in the villages of what is now the central Punjab of Pakistan. This “untouchable” caste status is at the root of several blasphemy charges against Christians.

Demonstrations were held in several cities in Pakistan following the acquittal of Asia Bibi of the blasphemy charges by the Supreme Court on 31 October, 2018. However, the numbers were in the hundreds rather than the thousands that might have been anticipated – even though they were able to bring much disruption for a few days.

At the time, the son of the ex-Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, who was killed in 2011 for trying to defend Asia Bibi, praised the verdict as “a victory for Pakistan and millions and millions of marginalised Pakistanis”.

Today he posted on Facebook a personal video message from Asia’s daughter in which she said in Urdu “With a heavy heart we say farewell to Pakistan. We’re grateful to all of you who’ve helped us. Our Martyr Salman Taseer, your blood is a debt upon us that we’ll repay to this land one day. Thank you, Shaan Taseer, for standing with us in our hour of need. We have no misgivings with anyone. Your love will always remain in our hearts”.

Today, Shaan Taseer’s sister, who’d visited Asia Bibi in prison with her father the governor, told the BBC that she was relieved and delighted that Asia (whose proper name is Aasiya Noreen) could finally live with her family again.

Eicham has told World Watch Monitor that she wants to become a lawyer, to defend people who are falsely accused, such as her mother was.

Background

In a memoir published in 2012 Noreen described the moment she heard her death sentence:

“I cried alone, putting my head in my hands. I can no longer bear the sight of people full of hatred, applauding the killing of a poor farm worker. I no longer see them, but I still hear them, the crowd who gave the judge a standing ovation, saying: ‘Kill her, kill her! Allahu akbar!’ The court house is invaded by a euphoric horde who break down the doors, chanting: ‘Vengeance for the holy prophet. Allah is great!’ I was then thrown like an old rubbish sack into the van..I had lost all humanity in their eyes”.

The case of the Catholic mother of five, now aged 53, has drawn international attention. World Watch Monitor, over the years, has followed her case closely. Following the rejection of her appeal by the Lahore High Court in October 2014 her then lawyer, Naeem Shakir, told World Watch Monitor that with the passing of time it had become difficult for higher court judges to dispense justice, which, he said, “is increasingly in the hands of the extremists”.

Not only Salmaan Taseer but also Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who showed support for Noreen’s case and advocated for reform of the country’s blasphemy laws, was killed in the first three months of 2011.

In May 2018, Pakistan’s interior minister, who has championed the country’s minority communities, survived an assassination attempt by a gunman protesting against the blasphemy laws.

In April 2018 Pakistan’s chief justice, Mian Saqib Nisar, said he would hear Noreen’s case personally. As part of his decision to hear Noreen’s appeal, Justice Nisar ordered police protection for her lawyer Saif ul Malook restored.

Asia Bibi’s husband and daughter visited London in October 2018, where they were pleading for her release, but also warning then that, were she freed, it would be difficult for her to remain in Pakistan.

Mis-use of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws against minorities

Blasphemy against Islam is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan. In November 2017, protests against potential reform of the current laws brought life to a halt in the capital, Islamabad, and though international pressure increases for the government to change its legislation, conservative Muslim groups continue to vehemently refuse.

Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, has spoken in support of the blasphemy laws, which have been used disproportionately against religious minorities. Pakistan’s 3.9 million Christians, for example, make up only 2-3 per cent of the total population, but over a quarter (187) of the 702 blasphemy cases registered between 1990 and 2014 were against Christians.

According to UCAN, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan noted in its 2018 annual report that 18 people became victims of blasphemy laws last year. These comprised 16 from Punjab province, where Asia Bibi lived, and one each from Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.

Amnesty International reports that 633 Muslims, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus are currently charged with blasphemy in Pakistan.

Omar Waraich, its Deputy South Asia Director, said: “…It’s a great relief that Asia Bibi and her family are safe. She should never have been imprisoned in the first place, let alone faced the death penalty.

“That she then had to endure repeated threats to her life, even after being acquitted, only compounds the injustice. This case illustrates the dangers of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the urgent need to repeal them.”

Ahead of their ruling, the judges received threats from extremist groups calling for mass protests and Pakistani Christians had said they feared that Noreen could fall prey to mob violence, even if she was found innocent by the courts, as she subsequently was.

One Islamic party, Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan(TLP), had warned that “if there is any attempt to hand her [Bibi] over to a foreign country, there will be terrible consequences”. The party is known for its strong support of the strict blasphemy laws, and has called for blasphemers against Islam to be put to death and for those who kill alleged blasphemers to be celebrated.

In February 2016, Pakistani authorities hanged Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who tried to justify his murder of Salman Taseer partly because of Taseer’s support of Asia Bibi, but he was still regarded as a cult hero by many

Pakistan is 5th on the 2019 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.

Late last year it was designated a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ by the US State Department, having been on its Watch List the year before. One of the reasons Pakistan was added to the list was the significant impact of the country’s blasphemy laws, said the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, during a special press briefing.

“[Of] the world’s population of people that are in prison for blasphemy, half of them are in Pakistani prisons, including Asia Bibi recently, who was recently released and is now awaiting a re-hearing of sorts by the supreme court of Pakistan,” he said at the time, though he added that there had been “some encouraging signs … how they’ve handled some of the recent protesting against the blasphemy laws, and we continue to watch very carefully what’s happening to Asia Bibi”.

Today the EU Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Jan Figel tweeted ” “We appreciate the efforts of the Pakistan government to definitely resolve the case of Asia Bibi”.

When he had visited Pakistan to discuss her case in December 2017, he had apparently told officials that the renewal of their export privileges to Europe depended on the release of Asia Bibi.

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