Aasia Bibi's Acquittal From Court

Photo Source: Catholic Ireland

Written by Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe UpFront

Aasia Noreen Bibi, commonly known as Aasia Bibi, had been kept in solitary confinement in a Lahore jail, a space without windows and with an open sewer, for around eight years. In the prison, she struggled with malnutrition, unattended illness, beatings and psychological abuse. In one of the most disturbing incidents she recounts how she had her neck put in a brace that was tightened with a key. It was then  pulled about on a chain by guards. 

Bibi was accused of blasphemy in a Muslim country because in her village, twenty-five miles, north-west of Lahore, several Muslim women, poor and uneducated like her, disagreed that she should draw water from the community well, as she was a Christian.

Wife of Ashiq Masih, a brick maker, one of the few jobs available to Christians in her village in rural Pakistan, she also made a living for the family, as making money was hard. The discrimination in her chore, at a local farm, was such that she was directed to fill berry baskets, twice as large, as of the Muslim women.

The local fables also make Christians spiritually unclean. If a Christian touches the Quran, they are accused of a crime. After the tussle with the village women, she eventually lost her job. It was later accused that she uttered blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad. Days later, she was found beaten and dragged around the village. Smeared in blood, she was taken to the police station, where a report was drafted against her. The local Mullah had assured that if she converted to Islam, she will be pardoned, but Bibi, a Roman Catholic, refused. With the result, the local court charged her for death on November 8, 2010, after her imprisonment.

In Pakistan, blasphemy laws can persecute anyone, including non-Muslims. According to their official sources, around 1,472 people have been charged with blasphemy between 1987-2016, including 501 Ahmadi Muslims, 205 Christians and 26 Hindus.

Since then, a memoir (Blasphemy, 2013) was also out in her name, co-written by a French journalist, Anne Isabelle Tollet, where Bibi was manifested as ‘a woman of Christian courage’, against the odds of injustice. Bibi wrote: "I've been locked up, handcuffed and chained, banished from the world and waiting to die. I don't know how long I've got left to live. Every time my cell door opens my heart beats faster. My life is in God's hands, and I don't know what's going to happen to me. It's a brutal, cruel existence."

The French journalist hired an Urdu-English translator, and waited hours at her prison gate, for her husband Ashiq, who would tell her Aasia’s answers to her questions.

In one of her email interviews, she wrote: “Even her husband and five children are also suffering from the accusation of blasphemy. They are all living [under] the threat of death and have gone into hiding, frequently moving house and unable to go outside or to work. The children miss their mother badly and have stopped going to school for their own safety. The youngest is only 9 years old. Her health is deteriorating, her husband risks being killed every time he visits her [in jail], and her children cannot see their mother for their own safety.”

Two politicians, Salman Taseer, former Governor of Punjab and Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti tried to come to her rescue, but they soon lost their lives. Bibi had broken down in her cell, when she heard about their deaths.

In the past, Tehrik-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool, called for only one punishment for her – beheading. Some others called for her hanging. In 2010, a Muslim cleric, Maulana Yousuf Qureshi, put a bounty of 500,000 Pakistani Rupees, for anyone who killed Aasia Bibi. He had also warned for speaking against, or changing the blasphemy law, and vowed that the Taliban or the Mujahideen would soon kill her. Even though the leader of Peshawar High Court Association, at that time, called these statements as 'words of a madman', this scenario did reflect Pakistan as a divided and radicalised society, where the whip of the majority was to be feared the most.

For assisting Bibi, Rev. Samson Dilawar, a parish priest, had also been threatened by anonymous callers for assisting Aasia Bibi. In his past, he saw his Catholic Church burned to the ground, and was also wounded by gunmen in 1997.

Since then, the members of the Christian community in Bibi’s native village were asked to keep a low profile, particularly when they moved beyond their streets. Later, Bibi’s husband, Mr Masih relocated to a single room house in Sheikhupura, with his children from an earlier marriage, that was a little more than a mile from her jail. But after Taseer’s death, he had gone into hiding. After that, he presumably assumed an imitated identity, and lived in some safe house.

Hate crimes against Christians in Pakistan are common, who live in the most ghettoised neighbourhoods, do the most menial jobs, and live the most marginalised social lives. In the past, when two Christian brothers walked out of Faisalabad courtroom, facing blasphemy charges, they were shot outside by gunmen. In 2014, around 1200 Muslim men burned alive a Christian couple to death for insulting Islam.

A number of campaigns have been organised for her release, ever since, to protest her imprisonment through online petitions. Ooberfuse, a UK based Christian pop band collaborated with the British Pakistani Christian Association, and released a song titled "Free Aasia Bibi" with a music video. She has also been the subject matter of many documentary films.

Quite lately, one petition created by the Voice of the Martyrs, an organisation aiding oppressed Christians, received over 400,000 signatures from over 100 countries.

In her memoirs, Bibi wonders, "whether being a Christian in Pakistan today is not just a failing or a mark against you, but actually a crime."

After Aasia Bibi’s acquittal from the Supreme Court on 31 October 2018, it is believed that Aasia Bibi is in some protective custody. Her lawyer, Saiful Malook has left Pakistan, a week after the verdict, citing security concerns, after receiving death threats.

But, supporters of Islamist parties, such as Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, have not taken it lightly, and riots have paralysed cities of Lahore and Islamabad. In Lahore, the co-founder of the party, Muhammad Afzal Qadri, called for the death of the Supreme Court Justice Saqib Nisar, and asserted, “whosoever has access to the judges, should kill them before evening.” Conversely, Prime Minister Imran Khan had warned the protestors not to clash with the state.

In the country, there are many of her sympathisers, who want Asiya Bibi to live a free life, as she has grappled with injustice for many years. Even the Pope had once prayed for her freedom.


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