By Abul Taher
24 November 2018
Asia Bibi, who has been on death row in Pakistan since 2010 for blasphemy, had her sentence overturned. ( AFP/Getty Images )
Asia Bibi may have escaped the hangman, but her freedom comes with a heavy price. Today, when she should be reunited with her five children, she is being hunted across Pakistan, forced to scuttle under cover of darkness from one safe house to another in fear of her life.
It is a desperate situation – and one not helped by Britain which refuses to offer the mother-of-five sanctuary.
Last month the Supreme Court in Pakistan decided that Asia, 52, who spent eight years on death row, had been falsely accused of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed. While most of the country erupted in fury at her release, nowhere did the anger burn more fiercely than in her home village of Ittan Wali, 40 miles south-east of Lahore, where her extraordinary ordeal began. Following news of her reprieve, women took to the streets to protest, a bus was torched and children ran riot.
Until now, beyond a few sketchy details, little about Asia’s persecution has been forthcoming. But last week The Mail on Sunday travelled to Ittan Wali and interviewed key witnesses, spoke to Asia’s trusted friends and unearthed court documents. What emerged was a story far more shocking than previously imagined.
Our investigation can reveal that, on the day she was seized by villagers and accused of blasphemy:
Asia was paraded through her village with a leather noose around her neck;
A baying mob beat her with sticks during a ‘court’ hearing;
Villagers smeared her face with black ink to humiliate her;
She was promised her life would be spared only if she converted to Islam;
Her life was saved when a schoolteacher rescued her only minutes from death.
Asia’s forefathers have lived in Ittan Wali since before the formation of Pakistan in 1947. For decades, they have been the only Christians among 300 Muslim families.
The village is wholly unremarkable – a collection of mud brick single-storey houses and dirt tracks skirted by open sewers – but it was home to Asia. And although she was frequently harassed and entreated to convert to Islam, she refused to budge.
She lived with her husband, Ashiq Masih, and two stepdaughters, one stepson, and two daughters of her own in a single room mud brick house.
Back in 2009, Asia’s husband was working as a labourer in a local brick kiln. But with four children to feed – the couple’s eldest daughter was married – Asia often worked as a farmhand to bring in extra money.
At dawn on June 14, Asia and 25 other women went to work picking falsa berries, similar to blackcurrants, in a field owned by the village’s richest man Muhammad Idrees. She was paid 250 rupees (£1.50) a day.
That morning was a Sunday, so her husband had no work. She left the house quietly, with Ashiq, now 62, and the four children fast asleep on the large bed they all shared.
At midday, when the baking Punjab heat reached 110F (43C), Asia went to a nearby hand pump and returned with a bucket of water to share with her colleagues and a tin cup. Two sisters, Asma Bibi and Mafia Bibi (who aren’t related to Asia), turned on her, saying: ‘This cup was intended for Muslims, why did you take the water from it?’
They said she had made the water impure, because she was ‘chura’, a derogatory term which means ‘low-caste’, used for Christians.
The two sisters then urged Asia to convert to Islam, so she wouldn’t be chura any more – typical of the religious harassment she faced in Ittan Wali all her life.
For once, instead of remaining meekly silent, Asia stood her ground. She said she would not convert, and asked why she, not her co-workers, should change religion.
It has been claimed that she disparaged the Prophet Mohammed during the heated discussion that followed. She emphatically denies this – and insists the allegations were invented to frame her.
If so, it is a scenario familiar to many of the nearly three million Christians in Pakistan, out of a total population of 165 million. The blasphemy laws, it is widely acknowledged, have long been used against them, not as a system of organised persecution, but simply as a way of settling petty disputes.
After the row, Asia ran back home crying and told Ashiq what had happened. He told her not to worry, and he seemed to be correct as there were no further incidents for the next five days.
But on Friday, the Muslim religious day, Asia returned to work in the falsa fields, unaware that a mile away, the village imam, Qari Muhammad Salaam, was stirring up the villagers by announcing on the mosque loudspeakers that she had committed blasphemy.
The first she was aware of any trouble was hearing a low rumble of voices, then the terrifying chant: ‘Kill the Christian!’
She realised the men were coming for her and soon they appeared on a ridge. She had nowhere to run. In a panic, she stumbled, dizzy with fear, and a minute or so later felt hands roughly grab her arms and shoulders while another man fitted a leather noose around her neck.
Hauled to her feet, she was paraded back to the village – led by the leather strap – and taken to a courtyard in the house of the village leader, where more than 100 people had gathered, including imams from neighbouring villages. It seemed that a makeshift sharia court was being convened.
The village imam was flanked by the two sisters and Asia was flung at his feet. He told her: ‘You’ve made derogatory remarks about our Prophet. You know what happens to people who insult the Prophet. You can redeem yourself by accepting Islam.’
Asia protested her innocence and said she did not want to convert. At this, the crowd became increasingly hostile and began jeering and spitting. Asia was then whipped with sticks and sandals. Then, in a form of ritual humiliation, someone smeared her face with black dye while others held her down.
One of Asia’s daughters tried to intervene but was grabbed by her hair and her face smashed against a door. Another daughter, Isham, then nine, could only watch, terrified and powerless.
At one point Asia begged for water but the crowd shouted: ‘No water for the Christian dog.’ Another voice added: ‘Drink urine!’
Then little Isham ran off to look for water and summon her father, who was out working.
By now Asia was badly bleeding and semi-conscious. But when her husband reached the village, he was held back by the mob. Fearing he would be killed, he ran away.
Witnesses said it was clear that villagers would have killed Asia but for the intervention of a teacher who argued that she should be handed to police.
Two officers arrived 45 minutes later and she was taken away and formally charged with blasphemy.
Two days later, Joseph Francis, of the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, a Christian group in Lahore, went to Ittan Wali to investigate.
Villagers told him that Asma and Mafia, previously friends of Asia, were told to argue with her as a way of forcing her to either flee her home or convert to Islam. When The Mail on Sunday visited Ittan Wali last week, we found her house was occupied by another family.
And from the moment of our arrival, our every move was shadowed. It later emerged that villagers had been instructed to tip off police about any Western visitors.
We headed to the imam’s house, next to the mosque. A group of men in their early twenties followed our reporters and stood close by, staring, as we waited for the imam to answer the door. Eventually, a middle-aged man, dressed in a blue shalwar kameez, appeared and walked us to the mosque.
Instructed to sit down on a mat in a courtyard, whose marble floors were caked with dirt, we waited for the imam to appear.
When he joined us he appeared friendly, offering tea and water, though his demeanour changed when Asia’s case was mentioned. He seemed angry at Asia’s reprieve and warned ominously: ‘Everybody is prepared to sacrifice their lives for the respect of the Holy Prophet.’
After Asia was charged with blasphemy, she was transferred to jail in the town of Sheikhupura, about 27 miles away.
In November 2010, she was sentenced to death by hanging in a 30-minute hearing at a court in the town, with no cross-examination of any witnesses. The court erupted with joy as she was sentenced.
The decision was upheld by Lahore High Court in 2014. In her written testimony, Asia insisted that the sisters and the imam conspired in a ‘false, fabricated and fictitious case against me’.
She added: ‘I offered my oath to police on the Bible that I had never passed such derogatory and shameful remarks. I have great respect to [sic] the Holy Prophet as well as the Holy Koran.’
Last month, the Supreme Court acquitted Asia after finding inconsistencies in the evidence of key witnesses, including Asma and Mafia Bibi, and the imam. The judgment said that there was a ‘feast of falsehood’ in their claims.
Joseph Nadim, a friend and guardian of Asia’s family, said that Britain should accept Asia as an asylum seeker, as there is a real danger against her life.
Mr Nadim said: ‘If she stays here longer, she will be killed. I am disappointed that they [the British Government] have not offered her asylum.’
Such is their fear for their safety; Asia’s youngest two daughters wear a Niqab veil when they go out so they are not recognised. Isham, 19, and Isha, 23, have previously had to flee a restaurant after being jeered at by other diners.
Because of safety concerns, none of her family was in court in Islamabad to see her freed last month, instead holing up in Lahore.
Mr Nadim recalled that, after the court hearing, he drove to be with them, but got stranded as rioters blockaded all the highways.
‘I had a cross hanging in my car, but I took it down and put it in my pocket. The family were constantly calling me to know if I was OK. I finally made it back.’
Despite the Supreme Court ruling, Asia was still not free to leave the country, as a petition by Qari Salaam was immediately filed against the judgment, demanding that it be reversed on the grounds it was ‘erroneous’.
Pakistan could now face more riots when the petition comes to court, which could be as early as this week. The issue has torn the country apart and two politicians who supported Asia have been assassinated. Punjab governor Salman Taseer was killed by his own bodyguard in January 2011. Three months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minorities, himself a Christian, was killed by militants.
Choudhury Ranjeet Lal, chief of the village of Youngsonabad, five miles from Ittan Wali and where Asia used to go to church, warned: ‘Asia should leave the country as soon as possible, because if they can kill politicians who defended her, they can easily kill her. The longer she stays, the more likely she will be killed.’
Asia was even kept in solitary confinement on death row because fellow inmates wanted to kill her.
Mr Nadim said that Asia would tell him every Easter when he visited that she had forgiven her accusers. ‘She would say whoever did her wrong, “I must forgive them, and I will not say anything wrong for them ever. This is the teaching of Christ.” ’
While on death row, Asia was offered as much as 500,000 Pakistani rupees [almost £3,000], a huge sum for a farmhand to convert from Catholicism to Islam with the promise that the charges against her would be dropped.
But she refused, said Mr Nadim, because of her unshakeable Christian faith.
He added: ‘Her faith in God made her strong and stronger. Now she wants to celebrate Christmas with her family in the open air, with sunlight and fresh air. Her children celebrated Christmas with her in prison before, but they could not hug her or kiss her.’