Andrew Boyd, from Release International, discusses the details of Asia Bibi’s case:
Pakistan’s Supreme Court has adjourned Asia Bibi’s appeal against her death sentence, following the decision of a leading judge to withdraw from the trial.
Justice Muhammad Iqbal Hameed Ur Rehman stepped back from the case. He did so on the grounds that he had been a judge in the case of the Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer who was murdered for taking a stand against the blasphemy laws.
‘It seems strange to pull out on the day of the appeal,’ says Paul Robinson, the Chief Executive of Release International, which has campaigned to free Asia Bibi. ‘Surely any potential conflict would have been known in advance?
She’s been there [on death row] for six years and her case is the most-high profile blasphemy case in Pakistan – arguably the most notorious the country has ever seen. More than 1,300 people have been charged with blasphemy in Pakistan since 1987, a disproportionate number of them Christians, but Bibi’s case has captured world-wide attention, with international calls for her release and an end to Pakistan’s repressive blasphemy laws.
In Pakistan, however, Muslim hardliners are desperate for her to be hanged.
Yesterday 150 Muslim clerics issued a fatwa warning the government not to release Asia, and threatening to kill anyone who helped any person accused of blasphemy. And when Salman Taseer was murdered by his own police bodyguard for defending Asia Bibi, thousands came out on the streets to hail his killer as a hero.In addition to the assassination of Taseer, minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti was also killed in 2011 for defending Bibi. There is an extreme climate of intimidation in Pakistan. More than 100 riot police were stationed around the court this morning to try to prevent violence, for which there is precedent in Pakistan.
‘What is clear is that it will take immense courage to withstand intimidation and release Asia Bibi – a fact underlined by the presence of so many riot police at the court this morning.’ – Paul Robinson
In earlier trials and appeals in Bibi’s case, Islamic extremists packed out the courts in an attempt to intimidate the judge into upholding her death sentence. That’s how it ended up being taken all the way to the Supreme Court; no judge has yet overturned the conviction, which campaigners say is probably – at least in part – because of threats to their own life by Islamists.
If it’s not possible for the court to find a judge willing to take on the case. The President of Pakistan should issue an immediate pardon and set Bibi free. But this will be difficult given the rapid growth of Islamism.
There are at least 16 other people on death row for blasphemy in Pakistan, and if the Supreme Court were to rule that Asia should hang, it will be the thin edge of the wedge. Many others will die.
This is a battle for the soul of Pakistan, which is a great, great prize. It won’t come easily, and it won’t come cheaply. We’ve seen in recent years an enormous rise in accusations of blasphemy. There was one case in 2011, and more than 100 in 2014. It all points to a rising intolerance that has to be addressed.
‘The blasphemy laws are being used to fuel the flames of intolerance. That’s why they must be repealed,’ says Paul Robinson.
And yet, despite the growing persecution in Pakistan, and the death threats received by Bibi’s family, their faith remains strong. Release International contacts have spoken to Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, who said his family is holding onto their faith, as is Bibi in prison, despite repeated attempts to convert her to Islam.
They are courageous people who need our prayers. What we are seeing [with Bibi] is a woman truly faithful unto death.