'Protect Asia and family from vigilantes' urge campaigners after Christian is acquitted
Protests have broken out in Pakistan over the decision by the Supreme Court to acquit Asia Bibi, the Christian mother who has been on death row for six years. Asia was convicted of blasphemy – a charge she has always denied.
Release International, which supports persecuted Christians around the world, describes the ruling as a triumph, and is now calling for Asia, her family and her lawyer to be protected from vigilantes who may try to take the law into their own hands.
‘We welcome this verdict,’ says Release Chief Executive Paul Robinson, ‘Finally humanity and common sense have triumphed over extremism. Asia was falsely accused because she was a Christian. Pakistan must act to protect the lives of this mother, her family and her lawyer. And Pakistan must take immediate action to repeal these notorious blasphemy laws, which are being used as an instrument of persecution against the country’s Christian minority.’
The Supreme court ruled that Asia Bibi should be released if she is not facing any more charges.
Asia Bibi, a mother of five, was charged with blasphemy in 2009. She has been on death row for six years, attacked and abused and a bounty of almost £400,000 has been put on her head. Her family have had to go into hiding. Today they are at even greater risk.
The ruling was made at 9am today (Wednesday) in Pakistan, which is five hours ahead of the UK, amid a heavy police presence. Protests have broken out in Islamabad and other cities, where pro-blasphemy protesters have blocked roads.
Pakistan’s radical TLP party has threatened the Appeal judges who freed Asia with a ‘horrible end’ and have declared they will bring the country to a standstill.
Earlier, 150 Muslim clerics issued a fatwa warning the Pakistan government of consequences should they release Asia Bibi. And that fatwa threatens to kill anyone who assists any person accused of blasphemy.
‘These are no idle threats,’ warns Paul Robinson, the CEO of Release International, which had 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.’
The Supreme Court ruling stated:
‘Since 1990, 62 people have been murdered as a result of blasphemy allegations, even before their trial could be conducted in accordance with law. Even prominent figures, who stressed the fact that the blasphemy laws have been misused by some individuals, met with serious repercussions. A latest example of misuse of this law was the murder of Mashal Khan, a student of Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, who in April 2017 was killed by a mob in the premises of the university merely due to an allegation that he posted blasphemous content online.’
Even so, newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan has described the blasphemy law as ‘inconvenient’ for people like Asia Bibi, and has pledged to keep it on the statute books.
At the Appeal hearing, Asia’s lawyer, Saif Ul Malook, successfully 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 newspaperDawn, 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 that the investigation had been faulty and grounded in malicious intent. The lawyer insisted, ‘No blasphemous words were used at all.’
According to reports, Asia’s husband Ashiq has described his wife as, ‘Psychologically, physically and spiritually strong with a very strong faith.’
Highest profile prisoner
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, a price has been put on Asia’s 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 killed for taking up her cause.
A lawyer, a judge and two leading politicians have been assassinated 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 Bibi’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 same 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 case. He did so on the grounds that he had earlier tried the killer of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer who was murdered for taking a stand against the blasphemy laws. Thousands poured out on the streets to hail Salman Taseer’s killer as a hero.
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 the 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 notorious 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).
Through its international network of missions Release serves persecuted Christians 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.
PHOTO: Asia Bibi - Release International