By Saif ul Malook
December 28, 2018
Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman, listens to officials at a prison in Sheikhupura near Lahore, Pakistan. (AP/AP)
Asia Bibi spent Christmas in a safe house in Islamabad, Pakistan. I hope that’s the last time my client, a Catholic, must spend the holiday unable to live and worship in freedom. Two months ago, a three-justice panel of the Pakistani Supreme Court overturned her 2010 conviction and death sentence for blaspheming the prophet Muhammad. Protests by religious hard-liners over the possibility that she would be allowed to leave Pakistan prompted the government to bar her, at least temporarily, from departing.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government appears determined to ensure the safety of Asia and her husband, Ashiq Masih, and the couple’s two daughters, until another country agrees to take them in. Canada is their most likely destination.
Asia was still in prison, not in the courtroom, when the decision was handed down on Oct. 31. Enraged protesters poured into the streets in several Pakistani cities. Police escorted me from the courthouse, and I spent three days in hiding, aided by friends in the diplomatic community, before I boarded a flight for the Netherlands still wearing my Pakistani lawyer’s uniform of a black suit and white shirt. I had insisted I wouldn’t leave without Asia, but my friends swore they would take good care of her. It was my life they feared for at that moment.
My last meeting with Asia had taken place on Oct. 10 at the women’s prison in Multan, about 250 miles from my home in the eastern city of Lahore, where she had been incarcerated for the past five years. Contrary to reports of her terrible treatment in prison, Asia seemed to have found a quiet life of sisterhood with her guards, who allowed her a television set and more time outside her cell than usually granted to death-row inmates. The relatively benign treatment might have resulted from pressure by Western governments, but I sensed it was because the guards recognized Asia’s bravery and human spirit.
Asia is not a sophisticated person. She was born 47 years ago to a poor family in a dusty farming village in the Punjab province and never sat in a classroom for a single day of her life. But she was helped by her strong religious faith when she ran afoul of blasphemy laws often exploited by religious extremists and ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.
She was working on a berry farm in June 2009 with several Muslim women when a dispute broke out because Asia had filled a jug of water for her co-workers. Like many Pakistani Muslims, the women refused to drink water from a utensil touched by a choorhi, a derogatory word for a Christian. Apparently incensed that a lowly Christian woman had argued with them, two of the women who later appeared as witnesses in the case said Asia had insulted Muhammad and the Quran. Local clerics began denouncing her. An enraged mob beat her and dragged her to a police station, saying she had confessed to blasphemy.
Asia was sentenced to death by a district court in 2010. She had legal representation in name only, because competent lawyers often fear to take on blasphemy cases. At least 70 people , including defendants, lawyers and judges, have been killed by vigilantes or lynch mobs since blasphemy laws were strengthened in the 1980s under the military dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. A lawyers group that offers free legal advice to complainants is known to pack courtrooms with clerics and raucous supporters who try to bully judges into handing out convictions.
In 2011, Salman Taseer, the prominent governor of Punjab and a critic of the blasphemy laws who had visited Asia in prison and promised to lobby for her pardon, was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards. A few months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian and a cabinet minister for minorities who had also spoken up for Asia, was murdered.
I took on Asia’s case in 2014. I’m a lawyer, and I do not want to see anyone falsely convicted of a crime, much less hanged for it. The Supreme Court granted a petition to appeal her case, and in 2015 the death sentence was suspended. In October, I was notified that the final appeal would be heard. The justices’ ruling for Asia, citing insufficient evidence, took great courage.
I think I will have to stay away from Pakistan for at least two years before it will be safe to return. Until then, I will live with friends in the Netherlands or with my daughter in Britain. But I yearn to return home to continue defending victims of the blasphemy laws.
Asia had rarely ventured far from her village before being imprisoned, so beginning a new life in another country would be a challenge for her. But she has shown remarkable strength throughout this ordeal, and I am confident that she will succeed.
Saif ul Malook, a lawyer, represented Asia Bibi in the successful appeal of her blasphemy conviction. Mehreen Zahra-Malik, a former Reuters correspondent based in Islamabad, assisted in the preparation of this op-ed.