“Asia Bibi – Free!” I read and reread those amazing three words in an email, whispered “Thank God,” but was still almost afraid to hope.
Why? Because even after nearly a decade of incarceration, and after Pakistan’s Supreme Court exonerated her in October 2018 — demanding her immediate release — that falsely accused woman spent six more months trapped in “protective custody.”
The story of Asia Bibi is almost unbelievable, particularly to those of us who enjoy unparalleled freedoms. An illiterate Roman Catholic farmworker, in June 2009 she was harvesting berries with a group of local women when a dispute arose.
One of Asia Bibi’s co-workers accused her of drinking from the same water container as the other Muslim berry-pickers — because of her Christian faith, she was supposedly “unclean.” A heated argument ensued, and by the time all was said and done, the angry Muslim women had officially accused Bibi of blasphemy.
The police were informed that Ms. Bibi had insulted Islam’s Prophet Mohammad. Of course, she denied the charge, but because of her minority Christian status, she was arrested and imprisoned.
In Pakistan, “blasphemy” against Allah, Islam, Mohammad, or the Koran is a capital offense. Subsequently, following a series of hearings and legal arguments, a Pakistani judge sentenced Ms. Bibi to death in November 2010.
As it turned out, Asia Bibi’s death sentence also ended up costing the lives of two officials who tried to defend her. Both prominent and courageous politicians, Shahbaz Bhatti, minister for Christian minorities, and Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, were assassinated in 2011 for opposing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and for speaking out in Asia Bibi’s defense.
So inflammatory was the case that even Ms. Bibi’s defense attorney was provided with security by the court.
My Pakistani-American journalist friend, Farahnaz Ispahani, served as a member of the Pakistani parliament from 2008 to 2011. She is also the author of “Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities.” Her book is essential reading for those who wish to better understand the distressing subject of religious persecution in Pakistan.
I asked her about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws — why are they so dangerous to those who speak against them?
“Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have become more pernicious and dangerous,” Ms. Ispahani explained, “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, such as Ahmadi and Shia Muslims. In the case of Asia Bibi, from the very outset, the other danger of these laws is that groups or mobs can exact petty personal revenge by a mere accusation of blaspheming.”
Today, Pakistan remains the world’s most appalling example of Islamist blasphemy laws and their vile usefulness in inciting violence and repressing the innocent. Despite the court’s declaration of Ms. Bibi’s innocence, Pakistan’s corrupt government continued to turn a blind eye to justice. They remained intent on pacifying the radical mobs that continued to rage and scream, demanding Asia Bibi’s execution.
For months, it seemed that Ms. Bibi was doomed to live out her life behind bars, incarcerated “for her own protection.” And so it was, for those who had done all they could on her behalf, that there was really nothing left to do but pray for her.
And indeed, it seems to have been the prayers of the faithful that finally turned the key, unlocked the door and — at long last — set innocent Asia Bibi free.
Thanks be to God.