Women acquitted of blasphemy kept in country
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