Condemned Christian woman seeks mercy in Pakistan

November 20, 2010

bibiA Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan on charges of blaspheming Islam said on Saturday she had been wrongfully accused by neighbours due to a personal dispute, and appealed to the president to pardon her.

Asia Bibi, mother of four, is the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law which rights groups say is often exploited by religious extremists as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.

(Photo: Asia Bibi in an undated photo handed out by family members on November 13, 2010. Standing left to right is Bibi’s brother Ramzan, Asia, brother Yunus and son Imran)

The 36-year-old farm worker was taken into custody by police in June last year and was convicted by a lower court on Nov. 8. She has been in prison since then, with her case drawing international media attention as well as appeals by human rights groups, and, according to Pakistani media, Pope Benedict.

“I told police that I have not committed any blasphemy and this is a wrong accusation, but they did not listen to me,” Bibi told reporters after meeting with Salman Taseer, governor of the central Punjab province where she is imprisoned. “I have small kids. I have wrongly been implicated in this false case,” she said in the prison, covered in a cloak that only revealed her eyes.

Taseer said he would take up Bibi’s case with President Asif Ali Zardari, who has the constitutional power to pardon her. “Inshallah (God willing) her appeal will be accepted,” Taseer said, adding that he had studied Bibi’s case and found that she had not committed any blasphemy.

taseer“She is a helpless Christian woman. She can’t legally defend herself because she does not have resources. Implicating such helpless minorities in such cases amounts to ridiculing the constitution of Pakistan,” Taseer added.

(Photo: Salman Taseer, 28 March 2009/Faisal Mahmood)

On Friday, Zardari asked the ministry for minorities affairs to compile a report on Bibi’s case within three days after Pakistani media suggested the accusations stemmed from a village dispute.

Read the full story by Zeeshan Haider here.

Bibi’s brother-in-law George Masih told Reuters on Thursday that she was arrested for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammad after a dispute with fellow workers in the town of Nankana in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

“Five days after she had exchanged hot words with her co-workers, a group of people from the Muslim community took out a rally and picked her up Asia from the farm,” he said.  “They brought her to village and then handed over to police. If she had said anything wrong, why did it took them five days to file a complaint?”

According to Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia analyst for Human Rights Watch in New York, Asia Bibi resisted pressure from fellow women farm labourers in her village near Lahore to convert to Islam and said Christianity was as good as any other religion. Villagers denounced her to the police as a blasphemer.  “What on earth did Asia Bibi do to merit the dubious distinction of becoming the first woman in Pakistan to be sentenced to death for blasphemy? Basically, she, a Christian and a peasant to boot, had the gall to feel insulted,” he wrote.

“Most people accused of blasphemy never committed the act but were charged by people with ulterior motives like a property dispute (or) personal vendetta,” the Lahore newspaper Daily Times wrote on Tuesday in an editorial. “Sadly, this is reminiscent of the Salem witch trials in the U.S. in the 17th century.”

bibi 3

(Photo: Asia Bibi’s daughters with a photo of their mother  outside their residence in Sheikhupura, Punjab, November 13, 2010/Adrees Latif)

Former federal information minister Sherry Rehman, president of the Jinnah Institute human rights group, said, “It is clear that Asia Bibi is yet another victim of the shocking prejudice that pervades our institutions. If all institutions of the state, including the judiciary, cannot protect its minorities from abuse, they must no longer be complicit in their victimization. The Blasphemy Law has been abused for over twenty years as an instrument of communal supremacism, and must be removed now.”

At his weekly audience on Wednesday, Pope Benedict appealed for Bibi’s release: “These days the international community is following with great concern the plight of Christians in Pakistan, who are often victims of violence or discrimination. Especially today I express my spiritual closeness to Mrs. Asia Bibi and her family, while I ask that, as soon as possible, she be restored to full freedom. I also pray for those who find themselves in similar situations, so that their human dignity and their fundamental rights are fully respected.”

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