Row over a cup of water that led to murder, riots and global outrage with a Christian mother sentenced to death over blasphemy charges in Pakistan
For a Christian Pakistani, it is far safer to be neither seen nor heard in public life. Prejudice against the tiny majority – just 1.6 per cent of the overwhelmingly Muslim population – is not only endemic in society, but enshrined in the country’s Penal Code.
Asia Bibi’s ordeal demonstrates how even a ‘triviality’ can be dressed up as blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammed, leading to prison and the threat of the gallows, or the summary ‘justice’ of a murderous mob.
For brave Muslims who defend Christian Pakistanis against such persecution, the consequences can also prove fatal.
Asia Biba, pictured with two of her children is a Pakistani Christian, and has been jailed for nine years for drinking from a well in June 2009. Now she is in fear for her life following her release
Asia’s case may have become a 21st-century international cause celebre, with London writer and film-maker Jemima Goldsmith castigating her ex-husband Imran Khan, the Pakistani prime minister and former cricket international, for appeasing Islamists baying for the defendant’s blood.
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But its origins lie in an innocuous pastoral scene that would not have seemed out of place in the western Punjab at any time over the past two millennia.
It was June 2009, and a group of women were picking falsa berries outside the village of Ittan Wali, on the dusty, hardscrabble agricultural plain west of the city of Lahore.
Among them was Asia, who is thought to be 53, an illiterate mother of five married to a labourer called Ashiq Masih.
Ms Bibi has been released from prison but is being held in a secure location due to the constant threats to her life
The heat of the Punjab summer is intense, and like most rural villages there was no running water in Ittan Wali. So Asia was sent by her co-workers to draw from the local well. After she drank using a utensil from which everyone was to quench their thirst, some of the women refused to drink from it.
They were Muslims and she was Christian, an infidel. Therefore the cup was now haram – unclean to them. It has been reported they even claimed the well was defiled because Asia had drunk from it.
That is when her real troubles began; troubles that would put her in jail for nine years under the threat of death and now, on release, to fear for her life.
The approximately 2.5million Christians in Pakistan are largely descended from low-caste Hindus who were converted by British missionaries during the Raj. Many did so to escape the prejudices and oppressions of the Hindu caste system. Now their descendants find themselves trapped in poverty and fear by a different kind of strict religious hegemony.
In recent years, their vulnerability has only increased thanks to the rise of militant Islam.
Blasphemy laws introduced by Islamist President Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq in the Eighties, have been used as a stick to subjugate non-Muslim minorities. The most significant in this instance is Section 295c of the Penal Code, passed in 1986. Anyone found guilty of defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed would face a mandatory death sentence.
Asia and her family were the only Christian household in her village, and therefore already vulnerable. Previously she had been harassed to convert to Islam. But the day she drank from the well there was an argument with three other women during which it was alleged religious insults were swapped. A ‘fight’ took place.
Thousands of Pakistanis have taken to the streets calling for Ms Bibi to be put to death
Five days later the local imam, Mohammed Qari Salim, became involved – and not as a peacemaker. He used his position – and the loudspeakers of his mosque – to whip up hatred against Asia, who was beaten by a mob chanting: ‘Death to the Christian.’ He also filed a blasphemy complaint to police.
‘They tried to put a noose around my neck so they could kill me,’ Asia later said of her assailants. But before she could be lynched she was arrested under Section 295c.
Her husband and children went into hiding, having received anonymous death threats. He told the BBC: ‘They say, “We’ll deal with you if we get our hands on you”. Now everyone knows about us, so I am hiding my kids here and there. I don’t allow them to go out. Anyone can harm them.’
Asia was charged with insulting the Holy Prophet and the Koran, allegations she has always denied. She then spent 18 months in jail on remand.
She said the allegations were made up by one village woman who had a long-standing grudge against her. Such score-settling is a common abuse of the blasphemy laws, according to human rights campaigners.
In November 2010, at a district court, Asia became the first woman in Pakistan to be sentenced to death under blasphemy laws, and was told to pay a fine equivalent to £2,180. A female farm worker in Punjab earns around £2 a day. At the court, a mob chanted: ‘Kill her, kill her.’ Asia was put on death row under 24-hour surveillance – for her own protection.
Pakistan’s Christian minority has stood up against the threat to Ms Bibi, although those
The death sentence caused outrage outside Pakistan – Pope Benedict called for clemency – but delight among the country’s religious hardliners. Imam Salim, who helped bring the case against her, said: ‘Any Muslim, if given the chance, would kill such a person. You would be rewarded in heaven.’ He said he burst into tears of joy when the sentence was passed.
Meanwhile, a cleric in the city of Peshawar offered a reward of £4,000 to anyone who killed Asia if she escaped execution.
Some official voices spoke out on her behalf. One of the most important and impressive was the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, a long-time critic of abuses of his country’s blasphemy laws.
He visited Asia in jail and said he would ask the then president, Asif Ali Zardari, to pardon her. The governor said Asia told him she had not disrespected the Holy Prophet and claimed she was sexually assaulted and dragged through her village by a mob.
That sealed his fate.
A few days into the January of 2011, he was gunned down by his own bodyguard, shot 27 times in central Islamabad. The killer was hailed a religious hero by many in Pakistan, and when in 2016 he was hanged for the murder, Islamist mobs went on the rampage in towns across the country. His funeral was attended by an estimated 100,000 mourners.
Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister for minorities and himself a Roman Catholic, also protested against Asia’s conviction and sentence. He had been receiving death threats from Islamist groups including the Taliban and Al Qaeda for years. His outspoken support for Asia only served to precipitate the inevitable.
Less than two months after Governor Taseer’s death, Mr Bhatti, 42, was driving through Islamabad when his car was riddled with bullets. He died in hospital.
Ms Bibi has been banned from leaving Pakistan by the government, which has placed her life at considerable risk as some religious leaders have placed a large bounty on her head
He had foretold the manner of his death in a video that was released after the assassination. Speaking to the camera he said: ‘I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us, and I am ready to die for a cause. I’m living for my community… and I will die to defend their rights.’
With Asia behind bars, attacks on her fellow Christians increased in frequency and ferocity.
In 2013, a twin suicide bomb attack on a church in Peshawar killed around 80 people. The following year in Lahore, bomb attacks on churches killed 14 and wounded 70. Christians celebrating Easter in Lahore in 2016 were hit by a suicide bombing that killed 70 and injured 340, while a church attack in Quetta last year caused dozens more casualties.
A new hard-Right Islamist party called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) was established, calling for blasphemers to be killed and their murderers celebrated.
Meanwhile, despite the grave threat to their safety, Asia’s supporters fought on. In October 2014, her appeal to the Lahore High Court against her conviction was dismissed and the sentence upheld. The following summer, the Supreme Court suspended her death sentence while the appeals process ran its course.
Then, on October 31 this year, three Supreme Court judges, led by the Chief Justice, quashed the blasphemy convictions and death sentence. One said: ‘Blasphemy is a serious offence, but… a conclusion is inescapable and irresistible that the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.’
While Asia expressed her delight from her cell, Islamists took to the streets, bringing towns and cities to a halt. The TLP party called for the judges to be killed.
Having praised the Supreme Court decision and the ‘rule of law’, Imran Khan caved in to the extremists and reportedly agreed to bar Asia from leaving Pakistan, and even have the verdict examined by another court.
This caused international outrage, not least from his ex-wife Miss Goldsmith (the mother of his children). She tweeted: ‘Three days after a defiant & brave speech defending the judiciary, Pakistan’s gov caves in to extremist demands to bar #AsiaBibi from leaving Pak, after she was acquitted of blasphemy – effectively signing her death warrant.’
Asia’s lawyer, Saif ul-Malook, had already fled the country, fearing for his life. His client is now in limbo, having been flown from her jail to the capital. ‘Asia Bibi is completely secure at a safe place in Pakistan,’ a foreign ministry spokesman said. ‘She can go anywhere she wants to, she is a free national … if she wants to go abroad, no harm in it.’
But it is clear that if she is allowed to leave there will be further fury from Islamist protesters – which means the moral credibility of Mr Khan is now in question as her fate is decided.
Will he let Asia go, or will he pander to those who would keep her in Pakistan where it is likely she will be hunted down and killed?
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