Women ac­quit­ted of blas­phemy kept in coun­try

The Guardian Weekly - - Global report - By Har­riet Sher­wood HAR­RIET SHER­WOOD IS THE GUARDIAN’S RE­LI­GIOUS AF­FAIRS COR­RE­SPON­DENT

Pak­istan’s gov­ern­ment was ac­cused of sign­ing the “death war­rant” of Asia Bibi af­ter it said it would be­gin the process of pre­vent­ing her leav­ing.

Bibi, a Chris­tian farm labourer, was ac­quit­ted of blas­phemy last Wed­nes­day. She had spent eight years on death row.

Bibi’s lawyer, Saif-ul-Mu­look, has re­port­edly since fled the coun­try, telling AFP: “I need to stay alive as I still have to fight the le­gal bat­tle for Asia Bibi.”

She may have been freed, but she’s never likely to be free. Asia Bibi, a Chris­tian farm labourer who has spent the past eight years in soli­tary con­fine­ment af­ter be­ing con­victed of blas­phemy, will al­most cer­tainly have to start a new life with her hus­band and chil­dren out­side Pak­istan. Even that may be wish­ful think­ing af­ter the gov­ern­ment, in the face of mass protests, said it would be­gin the process of pre­vent­ing her leav­ing the coun­try. Bibi will spend the rest of her days liv­ing in fear of an as­sas­sin.

Three judges, who ap­par­ently de­cided to over­turn her con­vic­tion last month but held back from an­nounc­ing it for fear of the con­se­quences, are also at risk from fun­da­men­tal­ists in­tent on re­venge. Af­ter the supreme court judg­ment, Afzal Qadri of Tehreek-e-Lab­baik (TLP), a po­lit­i­cal party ded­i­cated to pun­ish­ing blas­phemy, said the judges faced death.

There is prece­dent. In Jan­uary 2011, Sal­maan Taseer, the gov­er­nor of Pun­jab who had lob­bied for a pres­i­den­tial par­don for Bibi and urged re­form of the blas­phemy laws, was shot in the back by one of his body­guards, Mum­taz Qadri. The body­guard was found guilty of mur­der and ex­e­cuted; tens of thou­sands of peo­ple at­tended his fu­neral in March 2016.

A few weeks later more than 70 Chris­tians were killed in a sui­cide bomb­ing at a church in La­hore. A month af­ter Taseer was killed, Pak­istan’s re­li­gious mi­nori­ties min­is­ter, Shah­baz Bhatti, a Chris­tian who spoke out against the blas­phemy law, was shot dead.

The rul­ing Pak­istan Tehreeke-In­saf ad­min­is­tra­tion signed an agree­ment with the TLP last Fri­day, giv­ing in to many of its de­mands in the face of mas­sive, coun­try­wide protests call­ing for Bibi to be put to death. The gov­ern­ment promised not to op­pose a court pe­ti­tion to re­verse Bibi’s re­lease and also pledged to work to put her name on the exit con­trol list which would pre­vent her leav­ing the coun­try.

Many of Bibi’s sup­port­ers have been afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals. Amnesty In­ter­na­tional ac­cused the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment of fail­ing to take “ef­fec­tive mea­sures to curb the cam­paign of hate and vi­o­lence in­cited by cer­tain groups in the coun­try fol­low­ing [Bibi’s] con­vic­tion”. The state had shown “im­mense tol­er­ance for the nar­ra­tives of hate”, a re­searcher, Rabia Mehmood, told CNN.

In July, cam­paign­ers for re­li­gious free­dom were dis­mayed when Im­ran Khan de­fended Pak­istan’s blas­phemy laws in the run-up to the coun­try’s gen­eral elec­tion. Crit­ics ac­cused Khan – now prime min­is­ter – of us­ing the is­sue to win sup­port from re­li­gious rightwingers.

Ac­cord­ing to Open Doors, which mon­i­tors Chris­tian per­se­cu­tion, Pak­istan’s blas­phemy laws “tar­get Chris­tians in par­tic­u­lar”.

Ad­vo­cates for re­li­gious free­dom and Chris­tian or­gan­i­sa­tions wel­comed the supreme court’s de­ci­sion. Neville Kyrke-Smith of Aid to the Church in Need said: “To­day is like the dawn of new hope for op­pressed mi­nori­ties.” He saluted the courage of the judges in ac­quit­ting Bibi, say­ing: “It is im­por­tant that jus­tice is not just seen to be done but is done.”

Crit­ics Cr ac­cuse Khan of us­ing us the laws to win sup­port su from re­li­gious rightwingers rig

Pak­istan’s Prime Min­is­ter Im­ran Khan MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/AP

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