A Pakistani Christian woman has been sentenced to hang after she was accused of making ‘blasphemous’ comments about the prophet Mohammed during an argument. While working as a berry picker in 2009, 46-year-old Asia Bibi got into a dispute with a group of Muslim women who objected to her drinking their water because as a Christian she was considered ‘unclean.’
UK Daily Mail (h/t Terry D) Hours after the incident one of the women reported mother-of-five Ms Bibi to a local cleric, claiming she had made disparaging remarks about the prophet Mohammed during the row. As a result of the allegations, a furious mob arrived at Ms Bibi’s home and savagely beat her and members of her family. She was later arrested, charged with blasphemy and eventually sentenced to death – with her entire family forced to go into hiding after receiving threats on their lives.
This week, despite international outrage and hundreds of thousands of people signing a petition for her release, Ms Bibi lost an appeal to have her sentence overturned, meaning she now faces death by hanging. The shocking case hit global headlines after two prominent politicians who tried to help Ms Bibi were assassinated, one by his own bodyguard. Lawyers showered the killer with rose petals when he appeared in court and the judge who convicted him of murder had to flee the country.
Ms Bibi’s lawyer, Naeem Shakir, said her accusers have contradicted themselves many times since first raising their complaint. Two witnesses allegedly involved in the incident did not appear in court, he said. A Muslim prayer leader did appear, saying he did not witness the original altercation, but that Ms Bibi had confessed to the supposed crime in front of him.
Speaking of Ms Bibi’s failed appeal against her death sentence, Mr Shakir said: ‘I was expecting the opposite decision. We will file an appeal to the Supreme Court of Pakistan in a few days.’ But Gulam Mustafa, the lawyer for the complainant, said the court’s decision was correct. ‘Asia’s lawyer tried to prove that the case was registered on a personal enmity but he failed to prove that,’ he said.
Human rights groups say Pakistan’s blasphemy law is increasingly exploited by religious extremists as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores. The law does not define blasphemy and evidence might not be reproduced in court for fear of committing a fresh offence. There are also no penalties for false accusations.
Those accused are sometimes lynched on the spot. If they are arrested, police and the courts often allow trials to drag on for years, as in the case of Ms Bibi. The delays tend to be caused because officials are afraid of being physically attacked if they release anyone they feel had been wrongly accused of blasphemy.
Only one person has been executed since Pakistan imposed a de facto moratorium on executions in 2008. This year has seen a record number of blasphemy cases as well as increasing violence against the accused.
Mrs Bibi – a farm worker from rural Punjab – released a memoir called ‘Blasphemy’ last year, in which she described her torment at not knowing how long she has left to live. Talking about how she ended up being accused of blasphemy, she says: ‘I drank water from a well belonging to Muslim women, using ‘their’ cup, in the burning heat of the midday sun.
‘I, Asia Bibi, have been sentenced to death because I was thirsty. I’m a prisoner because I used the same cup as those Muslim women, because water served by a Christian woman was regarded as unclean by my stupid fellow fruit-pickers.’
In the book, Mrs Bibi describes how – tired of being considered a second-class citizen simply because of her religion and insulted by constant calls for her to convert to Islam – she decided to stand up to the crowd and defend Christianity. Pushing and shoving ensued, forcing Ms Bibi to flee the scene.
When she returned to work five days later she was attacked again, but this time the crowd were accusing her of having insulted the Prophet Mohammed. Battered and bruised, Ms Bibi was dragged before the local Islamic teacher who told her the only way she could redeem herself was by converting to Islam. Otherwise, he said, she would face death.
In November 2010 Ms Bibi was sentenced to death in a Sharia law court, becoming the first woman in Pakistan’s history to be given the death penalty for blasphemy. Over the past four years Ms Bibi has languished in the high-security District Jail Seikhupura, 22 miles north-west of Lahore, before being moved to a more remote prison.
Ms Bibi’s death sentence has drawn international outrage from human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch who say Pakistan’s blasphemy laws amount to form of religious persecution.