by Kaleem Dean.
Asia Bibi’s hearing in the Supreme Court of Pakistan has been scheduled in two weeks. Christians living in Pakistan and around the world are awaiting the verdict in this horrific case of a Christian mother falsely accused of blasphemy in 2009 and sentenced to death.
The law under which Bibi was accused was codified in Pakistan’s constitution in 1985 by army dictator and president of Pakistan General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. To solidify his power, Zia-ul-Haq appeased the Islamist factions by legislating far-reaching provisions to the existing blasphemy laws, resulting in hundreds of blasphemy accusations being brought against individuals – especially those from Pakistan’s minority populations.
The case of Asia Bibi, a mother of five children, has become internationally known. Along with the Christians of Pakistan, human rights organizations and media have highlighted the plight of her sufferings.
In November 2010, Bibi was sentenced to death by a court in Pakistan, making her the first woman to receive such a sentence under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Since then, she has suffered in different jails in Pakistan.
The day she was given death sentence she said, “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 was invaded by a euphoric horde who broke 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.”
Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih challenged the verdict in the High Court of Lahore but in 2014, the court upheld the decision of the lower court. Bibi’s attorney, Naeem Shakir, petitioned the Supreme Court, which suspended Bibi’s the death sentence for the duration of the appeal process.
The destiny of Asia Bibi is now in the hands of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Supporters hope the court will hear the case based on its merits and not on pressure being applied by Islamist fundamentalists.
Bibi has denied all charges brought against her, saying that it is absurd that she – as a Christian in Pakistan — would have said anything against the prophet of Islam (no Christian would do such a thing).
Bibi has suffered physically, mentally and spiritually in prison. She has developed number of diseases because of the squalid conditions I which she has been kept. No one has been allowed to see Bibi except for her immediate family. Time and again, other prisoners have tried to kill or poison her.
Because of her vulnerability, she was separated from the prison population, kept in a tiny room in solitary confinement and given basic provisions so that she can cook for herself. But because of her deteriorating health, it has become almost impossible for her continue.
Although Christians all over the world as well as human rights activists have struggled with Pakistan for her release, the Pakistani government has been indifferent to their cries. Rather, it has placated the Islamist fundamentalists who demanded that she be left to suffer in prison until her execution.
An international petition with more than 4,00,000 signatures was submitted to the Pakistani government, a fact which has never been mentioned to the Pakistani courts or the media. Pope Benedict XVI called for the charges against her to be dismissed.
Blasphemy laws in Pakistan are widely used to settle personal scores and vendettas. Ethnic minorities remain the supreme target to face the brutalities of these laws, the damage of which is beyond understanding.
Before the inclusion of the blasphemy provisions in the constitution of Pakistan, there were few examples of individuals involved in desecrating any religion, but since 1985, around 1,400 hundred cases have been registered. About 50 percent of these cases were registered against ethnic minorities, who make only 3 percent of Pakistan’s total population. Interestingly, there has not been a single case in Pakistan where the court has put someone to death for blasphemy.
There have been numerous examples of the misuse of this law, however, including:
In 1996, a Christian man named Ayub Masih was jailed for allegedly recommending Salman Rushdie’s book Satanic Verses to someone. All lower courts and appellate courts convicted Masih, but the Supreme Court found the case to be fabricated as a pretext to grab Masih’s property by his accuser.
Dr. Muhammad Younas Sheikh, a medical doctor, was charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws in 2000. After he was acquitted by the court, he fled to Switzerland and never came back to his home country.
Another man with the same name was arrested for writing a book deemed blasphemous and was given life imprisonment.
Hector Aleem, a Christian human rights activist, was charged under these laws in 2009.
Also in 2009, two Christian brothers were charged in Faisalabad.
In 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian and minister of minority affairs was murdered.
In the same year, Sulman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab was brutally killed by his own guard for speaking about the need to amend the blasphemy laws.
In 2014, a Christian man Sawan Masih was sentenced to death in the Joseph Colony massacre case where 300 poor Christian’s dwellings were destroyed by a Muslim mob.
This is unfortunately just a small portion of the cases, most of which remain unknown to the world at large. It is unfortunate that after causing such brutalities in the name of blasphemy, there is still no government in Pakistan that is ready to take steps to amend these laws.
We hope and pray that Asia Bibi will not face the full force of these unreasonable laws, and that the high court will have the courage to release her.