1/9/2019 International Christian Concern -- Almost 10 years ago, a Christian woman harvesting berries in rural Pakistan got into an argument with her Muslim coworkers. Little did she know that this argument would result in an accusation that would explode into the most notorious blasphemy case Pakistan has ever prosecuted and would dominate religious freedom headlines around the world for a decade.
The case started when Asia’s Muslim coworkers became upset because Asia, a Christian, used the drinking bowl used by her Muslim workers. This makes sense once you understand that Christians in Pakistan are considered spiritually unclean and untouchable, similar to India’s caste system.
When confronted by her coworkers, she defended her faith and, during the ensuing argument, reportedly said, “I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Muhammad ever do to save mankind?”
That was a near fatal mistake. Several of her coworkers reported Asia’s statement to a local imam named Qari Saleem and, days later, he formally accused her of blasphemy at a police station in Sheikhupura.
Soon after, a mob of enraged Muslims attacked Asia and her family at their home. Thankfully, police intervened, but then took Asia to a police station and opened an investigation which led to charges being filed under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s Penal Code, which put Asia’s life on the line.
At trial, Asia maintained her innocence, claiming that she had been falsely accused by her coworkers to settle a personal score. False accusations of blasphemy are common in Pakistan. Often motivated by personal slights or religious hatred, false blasphemy accusations are an extremely deadly form of revenge. The mere rumor of an accusation can stir up deadly mob violence.
In November 2010, Judge Muhammed Naveed Iqbal of the Sessions Court of Sheikhupura found Asia guilty of blasphemy and sentenced her to death by hanging in addition to a $1,100 fine. With this sentence, Asia became the first woman in Pakistan’s history to be sentenced to death on blasphemy charges.
Following the trial, Asia was sent to prison, where she was placed under 24-hour surveillance to protect her from other prisoners and even her own jailers. Asia told the Catholic Herald, “I cried alone, putting my head in my hands. I [could] no longer bear the sight of people full of hatred, applauding the killing of a poor farm worker.”
Outside of prison though, Asia’s case gained support both nationally and internationally. Salman Taseer, a Muslim governor of Punjab, and an old friend of ICC, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian and the Federal Minister of Minority Affairs, both advocated on her behalf. Both men denounced her conviction and openly criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Taseer went as far as to file a mercy petition on behalf of Asia, convinced that she would be released with little trouble.
Internationally, human rights groups like ours and Christian leaders around the world spoke out on behalf of Asia. Even Pope Benedict called for her release. Unfortunately, this support did little to quell the rage of Pakistan’s Islamic fanatics.
Governor Taseer was the first to pay for the rage of these fanatics.
On January 4, 2011, he was shot and killed by one of his own elite bodyguards, Malik Mumtaz Qadri. Qadri pumped 20 bullets into him and then immediately surrendered. He said he killed Taseer because of his support for Asia and for his comments against blasphemy laws.
This act made Qadri a national hero and defender of the faith among the fundamentalists. In fact, when Qadri appeared in court on January 9, more than 300 lawyers were there to offer him pro bono representation.
Sensing imminent danger, Shahbaz Bhatti requested greater security measures both nationally and internationally. During a visit to Washington, D.C. in February 2011, Bhatti asked the State Department to help him secure greater protection. ICC’s president, Jeff King, met with Shahbaz on this trip. Sadly, before security arrangements could be settled, he was also assassinated.
With the core of her national support assassinated or silenced by fear, Asia was forced to wait for the Lahore High Court to take up her appeal. After almost four years, the Lahore High Court finally took up her appeal. In October 2014, that court confirmed Asia’s death sentence. According to rumor, Justice Anwar-ul-Haq keeps the pen he signed the order with in his coat pocket as a memento.
Over a dozen Islamic clerics, including Qari Saleem, who brought forward the initial complaint against Asia, were present in the court. “We will soon distribute sweets among our Muslim brothers for today’s verdict, it’s a victory [for] Islam,” Saleem told AFP.
Less than a year later though, in July 2015, hope was restored when Pakistan’s Supreme Court accepted Asia’s petition for a review of her case and suspended her death sentence until the case could be heard.
While this was welcome news, Asia still had to wait more than a year for her appeal to be scheduled. Eventually, the Supreme Court scheduled Asia’s final appeal to be heard in the second week of October 2016.
On October 13, 2016, just a few minutes into the highly anticipated hearing, the court indefinitely adjourned. Many were shocked by this sudden and unexpected development.
While many were frustrated by this shocking return to uncertainty, her attorney remained confident that Asia would someday get justice.
“I am still optimistic,” Said-ul-Malook told ICC in 2016. “I hope it will not take too long for the next hearing [to be scheduled] with a new bench. This was a routine matter. It is not unusual for [hearings] to be postponed due to an incomplete bench. I am still very hopeful for an acquittal.”
While Malook was optimistic, Asia had to wait another two years before the Supreme Court heard her final appeal.
On October 8, 2018, another three-judge bench heard arguments from the prosecution and defense. Following the hearing, the Supreme Court announced that it would reserve its decision for an unspecified future date. The court further ordered the media not to comment until the decision was formally announced.
Days after Asia’s appeal, fanatics took to the streets in Lahore, Karachi, and Rawalpindi, demanding that the government put Asia to death. Extremist groups warned of “terrible consequences” for the Supreme Court Justices if Asia was allowed to flee the country.
On October 31, the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted Asia Bibi of the blasphemy conviction she had been under for nearly a decade. The 56-page judgement found that the prosecution against Bibi had not proven the blasphemy charges beyond a reasonable doubt and that the presumption of innocence remained with the accused.
“Asia Bibi today got justice,” Malook told ICC after the verdict was announced. “The Supreme Court held that the charges against her could not be proven. The Supreme Court of Pakistan deserves a salute.”
Following the announcement, Islamic fanatics once again took to the streets in protest. “The situation on the roads is very tense today,” a Christian from Lahore told ICC after the verdict was announced. “Muslims have blocked the roads, set fire to tires, and are protesting continuously. Christians are feeling very insecure.”
After three days of protests, the Pakistani government signed an agreement with the protestors. The government agreed that it would not block a petition for Asia’s acquittal from being reviewed and that it would not block a petition to add Asia to the Exit Control List, barring Asia from fleeing Pakistan.
Some feared that the decision to acquit Asia would be reversed, but most felt that the deal was made to placate Pakistan’s fanatics and bring the protests to an end.
On November 7, after almost a decade in prison, Asia was finally released from jail by Pakistani authorities and moved to a secure and unknown location. At the time of writing, Asia and her family remain in Pakistan, but arrangements are being made to allow them to seek asylum in another country and hopefully, finally, be at peace.
With such high stakes drama, it is easy to forget about Asia as an individual. While the legal arguments, political assassinations, and international relations are important, what is most important is the simple, central point of this case: Asia stood up for her faith in the face of extreme persecution for nearly a decade. She never backed down and never took the easy way out.
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