Islamabad, Pakistan – Catholic and Protestant leaders as well as Muslim scholars and non-governmental organisations have slammed a court’s decision to impose the death sentence on Asia Bibi, a Christian women convicted on blasphemy charges. She is the first woman sentenced to death for such an offence, and many Pakistanis are pressuring the government to change or repeal the country’s “obscene” blasphemy legislation. Meanwhile, the woman’s lawyers visited her in prison to prepare her application for an appeal.
A court in Nankana District (Punjab), 75 kilometres west of the provincial capital of Lahore, sentenced Asia Bibi, 45, to death for blasphemy. The sentence has not been carried out yet, but dozens of extrajudicial killings have been perpetrated by out-of-control mobs. Human rights activists note that the legislation itself encourages Islamic extremists in a country increasingly under Taliban attacks.
The facts go back to June 2009. Asia Bibi, a farm worker, was asked to fetch water whilst out in the fields, working. A group of Muslim women labourers objected, saying she should not touch the water bowl because as a non-Muslim, she would make it impure.
Later, some of the women tried to get Asia to forsake Christianity and convert to Islam. During the exchange, the Christian woman said that Jesus died on the cross for humanity’s sins, asking the Muslims women what Muhammad had done for them.
A few days later, the Muslim women went to their local imam, and accused Asia Bibi of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. One of the women is the imam’s wife. The religious leader then went to the police to file a complaint.
Asia Bib was arrested in the village of Ittanwalai under Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which bans defaming the prophet and carries the death penalty.
Judge Naveed Iqbal imposed the sentence almost year after the offence took place. In his verdict, he “ruled out” the possibility that Asia may have been falsely accused or that “mitigating circumstances" existed.
Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, 51, told AsiaNews that he would appeal her sentence, which must be upheld by the Lahore high court, the highest tribunal in Punjab before it can be carried out.
Asia and Ashiq have two sons and three daughters.
"Asia is innocent, the villagers are taking out a personal revenge", Sadiq Masih a close relative told AsiaNews.
This is the first time that a woman is sentenced to death. Last year, a Muslim couple was given life in prison for the same “crime”.
Minority and human rights activists are mobilising to get blasphemy legislation repealed because it encourages Islamic extremism and is too often used for personal vendettas.
"The blasphemy law is absolutely obscene and it needs to be repealed in totality," Human Rights Watch spokesman Ali Dayan Hasan told AsiaNews. "It is primarily used against vulnerable groups that face social and political discrimination. Heading that category are religious minorities and heterodox Muslim sects," he said.
“The Blasphemy law is often used as a tool to settle personal differences, 85 per cent of such cases are false cases,” Federal Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti said. Speaking to AsiaNews, he added, “Many innocent people have been victims in false blasphemy cases. The lower courts give their verdict, but such cases are never proven in higher courts. As for Asia Bibi`s case, I will not comment on the Court`s verdict, but she has a chance of appeal at the High Court and the Supreme Court. There are chances of getting acquitted in the case, I have written a letter to the IG (Inspector General) Police requesting security for Asia Bibi."
At the same time, “The government is reviewing the Blasphemy laws and working on procedures to ensure that the Blasphemy law is not misused. Amendments will soon be introduced to avoid any false accusations,” the minister said.
Similarly, "I don’t recall a death sentence ever being carried against someone convicted of breaking Pakistan's anti-blasphemy laws,” Rizwan Paul, and activist with human rights organisation Life for All, said. “Death sentences in these cases are almost always overturned by higher courts on appeal, Asia Bibi has the right to appeal against the death sentence.”
In the meantime, Life for All has launched a nationwide ‘Save Bibi’ campaign. In a week, it got 76,000 signatures. Another NGO, Peace Pakistan, has reached 51,000 signatures.
Life for All lawyers med Asia Bibi in prison today to help her file an appeal against the sentence.
Rev Alexander John Malik, Anglican bishop in Lahore, reiterated his community’s support for the petition campaign. In addition, “We condemn the wide growing misuse of the blasphemy law; the international community has to put pressure on the Pakistan government as such incidents are increasing at an alarming rate. If action is not taken, minorities will remain under threat."
Bibi’s sentence and the blasphemy legislation have also been criticised by Muslims. Muhammad Hafiz, an Islamic scholar, spoke to AsiaNews about it.
“The death sentence of Asia Bibi came as a shock to me” because “Islam teaches us to protect religious minorities,” he said.
“I have read the verdict; it is total injustice, Asia Bibi is innocent. She is a victim of personal rivalry. I strongly support the abolition of this discriminatory law. In the past few years, some fundamentalists have been using the blasphemy law as a weapon against the religious minorities.”
To illustrate the point, he noted that, “Recently, two Christian brothers accused of writing a blasphemous pamphlet critical of Prophet Muhammad were shot dead outside a courthouse in Punjab. Pastor Rashid Emmanuel and his brother Sajjad were killed as they left a court hearing in Faisalabad city, where hundreds of Muslim protesters had demanded they be sentenced to death.”