Asia Bibi marks nine years since arrest for blasphemy in Pakistan

The daughters of Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi pose with an image of their mother while standing outside their residence in Sheikhupura located in Pakistan’s Punjab Province. Standing left to right is Esha, 12, Sidra, 18 and Eshum, 10. (PHOTO: Reuters)

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Yesterday (June 19 2018) marked the ninth anniversary of the arrest of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly committing blasphemy in Pakistan.

The case against Bibi remains the highest-profile blasphemy case in Pakistan and has claimed the lives of several prominent Pakistani politicians.

In 2009, Bibi was accused of blasphemy following a dispute between herself and a group of Muslim co-workers harvesting berries in Sheikhupura. An argument broke out when Bibi drank from the same water basin as her Muslim co-workers, because she was a Christian and considered by the Muslim women to be unclean.

A few days later, it was reported to a local cleric that Bibi had blasphemed against Islam by saying: “My Christ died for me, what did Muhammad do for you?”

Since her arrest, Bibi’s case has become symbolic of the persecution facing Pakistani Christians and the widespread abuse of the country’s blasphemy laws. Bibi was convicted and sentenced to death on blasphemy charges in November 2010 by the Session’s Court in District Nankana, Punjab.

Governor murdered by bodyguard
Months later, the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, visited Bibi in prison. Upon leaving the jail, he made a statement that the blasphemy laws had been misused in her case. Within days, he was murdered by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, who had been convinced by radicals that this was an attack on Islam.

Two months after this murder, in March 2011, the Federal Minister of Minorities’ Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti — the only Christian in the Pakistani cabinet — criticised the country’s blasphemy laws, noting that they are easily manipulated. In Islamabad, shortly after the statement was made, an attacker sprayed his car with bullets. Police found a letter at the crime scene from the Tehrik-e-Taliban claiming responsibility for the murder, adding that Bhatti was killed for opposing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

In October 2014, Bibi’s appeal hearing was held in the High Court of Lahore. At that appeal, Justice Anwar-ul-Haq, one member of a two-judge bench, passed a short order on October 16, 2014, confirming Bibi’s death sentence. On July 22, 2015, the Supreme Court of Pakistan accepted Bibi’s petition for her case to be reviewed and suspended her death sentence.

Case indefinitely adjourned
On October 13 2016, the Supreme Court of Pakistan indefinitely adjourned Bibi’s appeal after one of the three Supreme Court Justices hearing the case decided to recuse himself. Justice Rahman recused himself from the case, stating, “I was part of the bench that was hearing the case of Salman Taseer and this case is related.” Since then, Bibi’s final appeal has yet to be rescheduled by the Supreme Court.

William Stark, International Christian Condern’s (ICC) Regional Manager, said: “It is disappointing to see Bibi mark her ninth year in prison. It has been nine long years since Asia had this false blasphemy accusation completely change her life.

“We here at ICC are hopeful that the Supreme Court will hear this final appeal at the soonest possible date. It is ICC’s hope that when the appeal is heard, the Supreme Court will resist outside pressure from extremists and decide Asia’s case on the merits.

“If decided on the merits, we believe that the court’s only conclusion will be to acquit. We also hope that the Supreme Court’s decision will lay a foundation for reforming Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws. This will be a signal to both Pakistan and the world that justice will prevail over extremism, even when a religious minority is accused of blasphemy.”

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