Asia Bibi’s troubles began in June 2009 in her village, Ittan Wali, in rural Punjab, a patchwork of lush fields and dusty streets. Asia’s was the only Christian household in her village
She was picking berries alongside local Muslim women when a row developed over sharing water.
Days later, the women claimed she had insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Soon, Asia Bibi was being pursued by a mob.
“In the village they tried to put a noose around my neck, so that they could kill me,” she said.
The police were called. They came and after removing Asia and her family from the village they charged her for blasphemy on the basis of accusations from other villagers. Despite her denials she was convicted and sentenced to death.
The imam at the village mosque says he cried with joy when the death sentence was passed on Asia Bibi. He helped to bring the case against her and says she will be made to pay, one way or the other.
“If the law punishes someone for blasphemy, and that person is pardoned, then we will also take the law in our hands,” he said.
Another radical cleric promised 500,000 Pakistani rupees to anyone prepared to “finish her”. He suggested that the Taliban might be happy to do it.
Over the Christmas period, political parties were out on the streets, holding strikes and threatening anarchy if Asia Bibi was freed, or if there was any attempt to amend the blasphemy law.
In 2010, Asia Bibi was tried and sentenced to death.
In response, Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of the Punjab region in Pakistan, spoke out on behalf Bibi, suggesting the country’s blasphemy laws were outdated and being used to settle scores against Christians in areas wholly unrelated to religion.
On January 4, 2011, one of Taseer’s bodyguards shot him 26 times with a submachine gun as he was returning to his car after meeting a friend for lunch. After the shooting, the bodyguard, Malik Qadri, threw his weapon down and put his hands up when one of his colleagues aimed at him. He reportedly pleaded to be arrested.
Qadri stated that he killed Taseer due to his vocal opposition to the blasphemy law in Pakistan. When supporters of Qadri blocked police attempting to bring him to the Anti-Terrorism Court in Rawalpindi, some supporters even showered him with rose petals. Qadri was tried and sentenced to death. He was hanged earlier this year. Following his execution protestors called for him to be given national status as a martyr.
A suicide bombing in March of this year in the north-western town of Shabqada which killed 14 people and wounded nearly 30 others was claimed to have been carried out as a direct reprisal for Qadri’s execution.
One of those who spoke out most vocally against Salman Taseer’s assassination was the Pakistan Government’s Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti.
Mr Bhatti, himself a Christian, also spoke out on behalf of Asia Bibi, arguing that she should win her appeal against her conviction, or be pardoned by the President of Pakistan. He argued that Asia Bibi is one of dozens of innocent people who are accused every year under the blasphemy law. As a consequence he received numerous death threats. He spoke about these during a television interview at the end of February 2011.
Less than a week after this interview, on the 2nd of March 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated.
According to the BBC, he was travelling to work through a residential district, having just left his mother’s home, when his vehicle was sprayed with bullets.
Bhatti was taken to a nearby hospital but he was pronounced dead on arrival. The group Tehrik-i-Taliban told the BBC that they carried out the attack, because Bhatti was a “known blasphemer.”
Asia Bibi still remains on death row. In October 2014 the Lahore High Court rejected her appeal against the death sentence. If the sentence is carried out she will become the first person in Pakistan to be executed for blasphemy.
Asia’s husband, Ashiq, and her two young daughters, Isha and Isham, deal daily with the uncertainty of what awaits them when they step outside their home, as they have also become targets for violence. In the first two years that Asia was in prison, safety concerns have forced them to move more than five times.
Today (October 13 2016) Asia Bibi’s case came to the Supreme Court in Pakistan. News reports suggest her appeal has been delayed with no new date set for a hearing, according to Al Jazeera.
Justice Iqbal Hameed ur Rehman told the court he had to recuse himself from the case: “I was a part of the bench that was hearing the case of Salmaan Taseer, and this case is related to that,” he told the court.
Asia Bibi’s wait continues.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the Australian branch of Amnesty International are just two of the groups worldwide who continue to campaign for Asia Bibi. In joining our voices with theirs we are able to let Asia Bibi know she is not forgotten and that in her continuing fight for justice she is not alone.
As justice is delayed and justice is denied, our prayers for her continue.
Arun Arora, Director of Communications, Archbishops’ Council