Asia Bibi, a Christian who has been in prison for Pakistan for nearly 10 years and who until recently was facing execution for “blasphemy,” is seen in an undated photograph obtained through the British Pakistani Christian Association. A Pakistani mullah has offered a large cash reward to anyone who kills Bibi
Nothing short of an international effort will save the life of Asia Bibi, who faces mortal danger now that Pakistan’s supreme court has acquitted her of the blasphemy charges that kept her on death row for eight years. The state will not execute her, but the mob will.
Perhaps the world’s most prominent religious liberty case, Bibi’s troubles began in 2009 when she was accused of insulting Muhammad. Bibi worked as a farmhand, and the charge grew out of dispute when her fellow farmhands objected to her drinking from a common water supply, because she was Christian and they were Muslim. A mob threatened her then, from which she was rescued by the police, only to be charged with “blasphemy” against Islam. She was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to death.
Pakistan’s blasphemy law prescribes death by hanging for those convicted. No one has ever been executed under the law, as it causes grave embarrassment for Pakistan’s government in international relations. However, Christians charged under the law often spend years in prison or are subject to mob “justice.”
Salmaan Taseer, the Muslim governor of Punjab, spoke out against the blasphemy law in 2010 and petitioned for a pardon for Asia Bibi. He was assassinated in January 2011 by his own bodyguard, riddled with 27 bullets from an assault rifle. His murderer was executed for the crime in 2016.
Two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and Minister for Minority Affairs in the Pakistani national government, was also assassinated by Islamist extremists for taking up Bibi’s case. His killers have not been brought to justice. The Catholic Church has opened a formal “cause” to investigate whether Bhatti might be declared a martyr and canonized a saint.
Bibi’s case has been winding its way through the Pakistani justice system and the court of international opinion. It reached the supreme court, only to be delayed when a justice — likely fearing for his own life — recused himself. Yet last week, in an act of supreme courage, the Pakistan Supreme Court threw out the blasphemy conviction, dismissing as “nothing short of concoction incarnate.”
The ever combustible “Islamic street” inflamed itself immediately, with mass protests calling for Bibi’s death, even if by extra-judicial means, i.e. the bloodthirsty mob. Bibi’s lawyer, Saiful Malook, fled the country after the acquittal due to death threats against him and his family.
A national poll revealed that some 10 million Pakistanis would be willing to kill Bibi themselves, either for the “blasphemy” or the money offered for doing so. One Pakistani mullah has offered a large cash reward to anyone who kills Bibi — on the street or in detention.
The Pakistani government well knows that if she was released she would be dead within days
Bibi was released on Thursday after being flown to the Pakistani capital overnight from her detention facility in southern Punjab. Her whereabouts in Islamabad remains a closely guarded secret.
Since her acquittal, fundamentalist groups have filled the streets with protests, prompting the government to make a deal to end them: Bibi’s acquittal would be “reviewed” by the supreme court and she would be added to the list of people not permitted to leave the country. The review will likely not change anything, as the court just ruled last week.
But if Bibi is not permitted to leave Pakistan, her acquittal means that she has gone from death row to “life” row — apparently permanent protective custody.
So what will happen to Bibi? We know from Taseer and Bhatti that Pakistan cannot protect even its senior government officials from Islamist violence.
The only hope is for Bibi and her family is to leave Pakistan and live in seclusion somewhere else, hoping that the religious hatreds in Pakistan will not hunt her down abroad. Bibi’s husband has publicly and urgently begged for the EU, Britain, Canada and the United States to grant them asylum.
Bibi’s husband has publicly and urgently begged for the EU, Britain, Canada and the United States to grant them asylum
The Pakistan government needs to find a diplomatic way to get Bibi out of Pakistan, for the entire Christian world is watching. How that will be accomplished remains to be seen. If American special forces could get into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden against the wishes of the Pakistani government, surely it should be possible to get Asia Bibi out with the co-operation of the Pakistani government.
In 2011, just weeks before his assassination, Shahbaz Bhatti met Stephen Harper in Ottawa. The prime minister offered him refuge in Canada, knowing that his life was in mortal danger at home. Bhatti was grateful but declined, choosing to go back home to his likely death.
I would expect that the Canadian High Commissioner in Islamabad has already been instructed to offer the Pakistani government safe passage and immediate asylum in Canada for Bibi, her family and her lawyers. She is in desperate need. It would be an honour for Canada to grant her safety and liberty.