Time is running out for Asia Bibi, a Pakistani mother of five and death-row prisoner whose legal representatives have filed one last appeal to spare her life.
Her long-awaited supreme court appeal will finally be heard during the second week of October.
According to local sources, Bibi – who was accused of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammad seven years ago – has recently been moved to a remote prison, where her children, including one with Down’s Syndrome, are no longer able to visit her.
Her husband cannot work because of death threats; her terrified family has relocated to an undisclosed location, while suffering severe financial distress.
This unjustly accused woman – who worked as a common field laborer – was first attacked as an “unclean” infidel when, on a scorching day, she reached out to drink water from the same well as her Muslim coworkers. A dispute followed, in which Bibi was violently assaulted and abused.
Wilson Chowdhry of British Pakistan Religious Association described the incident:
Asia Bibi was brutally beaten after drinking water from a well that was specifically for the use of Muslims in in highly discriminatory Pakistan. Her mistake had been to offer water from the same well to Muslim coworkers who started to beat Asia, whilst cursing her and her faith.
Asia could not take the insults made against Jesus her Lord, so she simply said, “My Christ died for me; what did Muhammad do for you?”
The male coworkers were told about this and Asia Bibi was gang-raped for her alleged crime of blasphemy; she was beaten to her home where her children were later sexually molested. For her crime of blasphemy, which was induced by the demand of a local Imam, she was imprisoned under Pakistan's notorious blasphemy laws.
Bibi was officially accused of blasphemy on June 14, 2009.
More than a year later, on Nov. 8, 2010, Bibi was convicted and sentenced to death. On Oct. 16, 2014, the Lahore High Court dismissed a legal appeal and upheld her conviction and sentence.
Bibi’s arrest, imprisonment, conviction and death sentencing are based on her “violation” of section 295-C of Pakistan's Penal Code, which reads:
Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to a fine.
In its recently released Religious Freedom Report, the U.S. State Department took a strong position against such regulations by saying, “Anti-blasphemy beliefs and laws have led to the imprisonment and death of religious minorities and women, particularly in Muslim countries.”
Further details about Pakistan’s uniquely horrific blasphemy edicts were recently provided by Lobna Thomas Benjamin, writing for Gatestone Institute:
Blasphemy cases against Christians in Pakistan increased when the late military dictator, General Zia Ul Haq, harshened the blasphemy laws during his rule (1978 – 1988). Since then, the blasphemy laws have daily threatened the Christians of Pakistan.
According to a 2013 report, ‘Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan,’ published by the Center for Research and Security Studies, 247 blasphemy cases were registered between 1987 and 2012; 52 of the people involved were killed extrajudicially.
That simply means that even when those who are accused or indicted for blasphemy are somehow set free, they are at risk of being slaughtered by local mobs. In those cases, the police all too often turn a blind eye.
In fact, Bibi’s case has generated more than the usual international interest because of the murder of two high-profile Pakistani officials who publically supported her.
Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister of minority affairs, were both killed in separate 2011 assassinations after defending Bibi and speaking out against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
When Bhatti’s killer was recently executed, raging mobs demanded Bibi’s immediate execution by hanging.
I spoke about these blasphemy laws with my friend Farahnaz Ispahani, a Pakistani journalist who served as a member of the Pakistani parliament while her husband, Husain Haqqani, was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008 – 2011. Today – shadowed by death threats – the two of them live in the United States.
I asked Ispahani why Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are so controversial and perilous to those who oppose them. She explained,
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have become more pernicious and dangerous as the society at large has become more extremist and unwilling to share space with those of other beliefs like Pakistan's Christians, Hindus and Sikhs – and even those of the same faith, but of different sects like Ahmadi and Shia Muslims.
Even religious and conservative Sunni Muslim scholars of Islam, like Professor Shakeel Auj of Karachi, have been gunned down for having a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding and interpretation.
There is still a majority of Pakistanis who will not kill someone who believes or practices differently, but they have become fearful of armed and jihadi groups, and the madrasahs the killers come from.
Since her initial internment in 2009, and in increasingly frail health, Bibi has barely survived under horrendous conditions in filthy prison cells. Today, she is kept in solitary confinement.
Her numerous appeals for clemency have been repeatedly rescheduled and then rejected by Pakistan’s court system. And now there remains only one last chance for her life to be spared.
According to the U.S. State Department Religious Freedom Report, “On July 22, 2015 the Supreme Court of Pakistan suspended the death sentence of Asia Bibi, pending appeal.”
Two weeks ago, on Aug. 12, that last appeal was filed.
That day, a representative of Bibi’s lawyer, Saif-ul-Malook, reported, “I am pleased to inform you that we today submitted [Bibi’s] petition in Supreme Court of Pakistan.”
On Aug. 23, Wilson Chowdhry wrote that Bibi’s final appeal will be heard in October, based on a declaration by the chief justice of Pakistan, who has ordered the supreme court to fix a date in October.
If this appeal fails, the death sentence will be reinstated. And Bibi may well become the first Pakistani women to ever be executed for blasphemy.
Nina Shea, my colleague at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, commented on Bibi’s final appeal:
This is Asia Bibi's last recourse after seven years of brutality and imprisonment under an unjust law and unfair process.
Hers is the human face of anti-Christian persecution in the world today. It is her photo that is featured on a giant poster on the outside wall of the mayor's office in Paris. It is her case that is discussed and attested to at human rights conferences in New York, London and Madrid, and in the halls of the U.S. Congress and the United Nations.
How Pakistan's supreme court decides her case will determine her fate, as well as that of the rule of law in a state that slides further toward Islamic totalitarianism each passing year.
The world will be closely watching.
Yes, watching. And waiting. And those who pray will be praying with all their hearts for Bibi’s exoneration, freedom and lifelong protection.
Those who wish to express their concern about Asia Bibi’s death sentence are encouraged to contact:
Embassy of Pakistan, Washington, DC, 20008.
(202)243-6500, FAX: 202-686-1534