Asia Bibi: Still a 'prisoner' in Pakistan?

Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who had spent almost a decade on death row over blasphemy allegations, was acquitted by Pakistan's top court in January. But Bibi is still not a free person, and her whereabouts are unknown.

In January, Pakistan's highest court upheld its October 2018 ruling to acquit Asia Bibi , an impoverished Catholic woman, of blasphemy charges. Bibi, a mother of five, was arrested in June 2009, after her neighbors complained she had made derogatory remarks about Islam's Prophet Muhammad. A year later, Bibi was sentenced to death despite strong opposition from national and international human rights groups.

After the Supreme Court's ruling, Asia Bibi should have been a free person. She is not in jail, as there is no case against her. The blasphemy allegations against her have been proven wrong. Should she choose to leave the country for Canada, where her daughters are reportedly staying, she has every right to depart.

But it's been more than two months since Bibi's acquittal, and not many people in Pakistan know where she is. It's been reported that Bibi has been kept in "protective custody" in an unknown location.

Read more: Conflicting reports about Asia Bibi's whereabouts

After Bibi's acquittal in October 2018, Islamists took to the streets and brought Pakistan to a standstill through violent protests. Bibi may indeed need protection from them, but why does it appear that she is not allowed to leave the country?

Pakistan's human rights groups and activists say it is a worrying sign that Bibi is still a "prisoner," despite her legal victory.

Read more: The case of Asia Bibi in Pakistan

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

Leaving 'for Canada'

A decade after being accused of blasphemy, Asia Bibi left Pakistan with her husband Ashiq Masih for Canada. A family member told DW that Bibi's two daughters were waiting for her in Calgary. Her departure was delayed six months, reportedly due to extreme pressure from the deep state not to speak out against the state when she leaves the country.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

A dispute over water

In 2009, Asia Bibi was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad while she was working in a field in Punjab's Sheikhupura district. The Muslim women who were working with Bibi objected to her fetching water, saying that as a non-Muslim she was not allowed to touch the water bowl. The women then complained to a local cleric and leveled blasphemy charges against Bibi.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

A sensitive matter

According to local media, the argument in the field led to a mob attack on Bibi's house. Later, police took Bibi into custody and launched an investigation into the blasphemy accusations. Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Pakistan, where 97 percent of the population is Muslim.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

Controversial law

The blasphemy law was introduced by General Zia-ul-Haq, a military dictator, in the 1980s. Activists say they are often implemented in cases that have little to do with blasphemy and are used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas. Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis — a minority Islamic sect — are often victimized as a result.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

The Pakistani state vs. Bibi

In 2010, a lower court convicted Bibi of blasphemy. Although the defense lawyer argued that the blasphemy allegations were made to settle personal scores, the court sentenced Bibi to death by hanging. Bibi's family has been living under constant fear since 2010. Her husband, Ashiq Masih (R), says he has been fighting a battle for his wife's freedom ever since.

Former governor of Punjab province Salman Taseer and Asia Bibi (AP)

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

Assassination of critics

In 2010, Salman Taseer (R), the then governor of Punjab province, backed Bibi and demanded amendments in the blasphemy laws. Taseer's anti-blasphemy law position angered extremists. In 2011, Taseer was gunned down by his own bodyguard in Islamabad. The same year, Shahbaz Bhatti, the then minister for minorities and a prominent blasphemy law critic, was also assassinated by unidentified gunmen.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

Celebration of killings

After Taseer's murder, Qadri became a hero for Pakistani Islamists. Qadri was showered with rose petals by right-wing groups as he was taken to jail by the authorities. Qadri was sent to the gallows in 2016. Thousands of people – mostly supporters of Islamic groups – attended Qadri's funeral. Local media reported that Qadri's supporters built a shrine after his death to honor him.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

Fear in the judicial community

After the killings of blasphemy law critics, many lawyers refused to take up Bibi's case in the higher courts. In 2014, the Lahore High Court upheld her death sentence. Pakistan's top court, the Supreme Court, was scheduled to hear Bibi's appeal against the conviction in 2016, but one judge refused to be a part of the judicial bench, citing personal reasons.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

Victims of blasphemy law

According to the American Centre for Law and Justice, at least 40 Pakistanis were sentenced to death on blasphemy charges in 2016. The law is often used to target religious minorities and secular Muslims. Although there hasn't been any legal execution under the blasphemy law, there have been instances where angry mobs have lynched alleged blasphemers.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

Persecution of religious minorities

Pakistan's Christians and other religious minorities complain of legal and social discrimination in their country. In the past few years, many Christians and Hindus have been brutally murdered over unproven blasphemy allegations.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

Threats from Islamists

Religious extremists in Pakistan, particularly the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) group, have warned the authorities against reversing Bibi's blasphemy verdict. The country's Christian minority fears that if the judges decide to reverse the death sentence, they could face a violent backlash from the country's hardline Islamic groups.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

International support for Bibi

Rights groups and Western governments demand a fair trial in Bibi's case. In 2015, Bibi's daughter met with Pope Francis, who offered prayers for her mother at the Vatican. In 2014, Amnesty International dubbed the Lahore High Court's verdict against Bibi a "grave injustice." The American Centre for Law and Justice also condemned Bibi's sentence and urged Islamabad to protect religious minorities.

Bibi's life could be in danger

"Extremists could still harm Bibi," Obed Robert, a friend of Bibi's husband Ashiq Masih, told DW. Robert, who is a priest, had accompanied Bibi's husband to court hearings on several occasions.

"I think she is still in the country and has not left yet," Robert said, adding that it is not good for Bibi's safety.

Fears about Bibi's safety are echoed by other members of the Christian community as well. Shamoon Alfred Gill, vice-chairman of the Minorities Alliance Pakistan organization, says that as long as Bibi stays in Pakistan, her life remains in danger.

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"We have requested our friends and civil society members to appeal to international organizations, as well as Pakistani authorities, to ensure Bibi's safe departure from the country," Gill told DW.

Blasphemy is a sensitive topic in Pakistan, where 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslim. Rights activists have demanded reforms of controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. Activists say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas.

Read more: Pakistan dangles between hope and despair over minority rights

According to rights groups, around 1,549 blasphemy cases have been registered in Pakistan between 1987 and 2017. More than 75 people have been killed extra-judicially on blasphemy allegations. Some of them were even targeted after being acquitted in blasphemy cases by courts.

Pakistan's Christians and other religious minorities have often complained of legal and social discrimination in their country. In the past few years, many Christians and Hindus have been brutally murdered over unproven blasphemy allegations.

In one case, a young Christian girl with Down Syndrome was accused in August 2012 of burning pages upon which verses of the Koran were inscribed. Rimsha Masih was taken into police custody and only released months later, when charges were dropped. The case caused an uproar in her hometown and beyond and sparked riots and violence against Christians in the region. In 2013, she and her family relocated to Canada.

In 2014, a Christian couple was beaten to death for allegedly desecrating a copy of the Koran. Their bodies were subsequently burned in a brick kiln.

In September last year, a Christian man in Pakistan was sentenced to death for sharing "blasphemous" material on WhatsApp.

Read more: Opinion: Pakistan owes Asia Bibi an apology

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Pakistan's 'image' problem

Some Pakistanis are of the view that the government had secretly allowed Bibi to leave the country after her acquittal. These people say that the authorities do not want to reveal this for the fear of a backlash from Islamists. The Pakistani government's "silence" on this issue is fueling more speculation and "conspiracy theories."

"I do not know if Bibi has left the country or not," a government minister told DW on condition of anonymity.

Saiful Mulook, Bibi's lawyer, who had temporarily fled to the Netherlands after Bibi's acquittal, said he is also unaware of Bibi's whereabouts.

"I have not been in contact with her or her husband after the apex court released her, so I cannot say whether she is in the country or has already left. I cannot say anything on this issue because nobody contacted me or informed me about it," Mulook told DW.

Government agencies that keep records of passengers flying out of the country also told DW that Bibi's name is not on their list.

Shaan Taseer, the son of the former governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who was killed for supporting Bibi, says it is not Islamic clerics but "some other people" who do not want Bibi to leave Pakistan.

"I think the powers that be in Pakistan want to protect the image of Pakistan. They fear that Bibi would damage the country's image once she is out Pakistan. It is entirely unjustified," Taseer told DW.

Taseer described the delay in Bibi's departure as "outrageous."

"There is no justification for the government to deny her freedom. The government is overstepping its authority," Taseer said.

Read more: Pakistan blasphemy case: Asia Bibi's husband fears for wife's safety

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