K.S. Rajan (25 Nov 2011)
"Believer in Pakistan"

Asia Bibi “frail” yet “strong a year since she was sentenced to death for blasphemy
On 8 November 2010, the 45-year-old Christian mother of five was told she would be executed. Her faith in Christ and the pope’s plea for her release are sources of hope and strength that allow her to continue to fight. The bishop of Islamabad slams the inaction of judges, who have not yet set a date for her appeal.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) – A year after she was sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy, Asia Bibi remains “frail” but is “strong in spirit”. She is waiting with hope for the start of her appeal trial even though the Lahore High Court has not yet set a date for the first hearing, this according to relatives who have regularly visited the 45-year-old Christian mother of five, each Tuesday, in Sheikhupura Prison, Punjab, where she is held in isolation in a high security cell under a 24-hour watch.

Since then, a bounty of several thousands of dollars offered by an Islamic fundamentalist leader was put on her head. And some of those who tried to plead her case, like Federal Minority Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and Punjab Provincial Governor Salman Taseer, have been assassinated by extremists.

Mgr Rufin Anthony, bishop of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, slams the legal system for its slow going. “They have not yet chosen a date for the appeal,” he said. By contrast, the appeal launched by Mumtaz Qadri, Salman Taseer’s assassin, was quickly added to the court’s timetable, and “more than 2,000 lawyers and a former chief justice have indicated their support for the self-confessed murderer. The Lahore High Court instead has not yet found time to hear the plea of an innocent woman.”

The bishop of Islamabad wants Pakistan’s highest authorities, including the Justice minister, to intervene. However, so far, warnings by Western governments and Pope Benedict XVI’s appeal and words of solidarity for the Christian mother have fallen on deaf years.

Asia Bibi was sentenced to death on 8 November 2011 by a court in Punjab. She had been arrested on blasphemy charges in June of 2009 stemming from a discussion she had had with Muslim women. At the time, she tried to defend her Christian faith and Jesus, who died on the cross for humanity’s sins, asking her co-workers what Muhammad had done for them. After verbally assaulting her, they accused her of “contaminating” a well by drawing water from it.

The women had come to pick fruit on a Sunday, and Asia Bibi had joined them to earn some extra money for her poor but dignified family.

Local Muslims retaliated against her once the charges of blasphemy were made. They surrounded her home and tried to lynch her.

After receiving a beating, she was “saved” only by the intervention of the police, which filed a First Information Report on the basis of Article 295-C of the Pakistan Criminal Code.

At the trial, Asia Bibi’s defence attorney called the charges against his client a staged fantasy by majority Muslims against minority Christians. Yet, the presiding judge convicted her and imposed an exemplary sentence: Death.

Since then, a Peshawar imam offered a US$ 6,000 reward on 15 December 2010 for her death, issuing threats against anyone who tried to defend her.

On 4 January 2011, bodyguard Malik Mumtaz Qadri shot at Punjab Governor Salman Taseer 26 times, killing him. The governor had called for a pardon for Asia Bibi and changes to the ‘black law’.

On 2 March 2011, Minority Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, was gunned down by Muslim extremists for pleading Asia Bibi’s case.

At present, the 45-year-old mother of five is held in the women’s section of Sheikhupura Prison in Punjab. Even though she is behind bars, she is still the object of threats by Muslim fundamentalists.

Her family and supporters say that in this tragic phase of her life she is sustained by an unshakable faith and finds comfort in the appeal Benedict XVI made for her release during the Angelus in Saint Peter’s Square. (JK)