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Pakistan

Bittersweet Freedom

1 Jan 2019

In October 2018 Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who has been on death row in Pakistan for nine years, was acquitted of blasphemy charges.

Asia Noreen, better known as Asia Bibi, was falsely accused of blasphemy in 2009 by a local cleric after a disagreement with two of her fellow farm workers. In November 2010 she was convicted, sentenced to death and ordered to pay a fine of 100,000 rupees (approximately £590). Asia Bibi was the first woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan, and as a result her case attracted international media attention.

We’re so grateful that many of you have been praying faithfully for Asia Bibi  and her family throughout their ordeal. Yet the news of her release is bittersweet: with violent protests across the country, and hardline Islamists searching house to house to hunt out the family, they are very much at risk. As the case develops her safety and security remain our top priority.

Death sentence overturned
The Supreme Court’s decision to acquit Asia Bibi last October overturned the previous decisions by the High Court and the Trial Court. Their 56-page judgement affirmed that the state must ensure no innocent person is compelled to face an investigation or a trial on the basis of false or trumped-up allegations of committing blasphemy. They concluded that there were a number of contradictions and inconsistent witness statements in her case which cast doubt on the evidence. Following the verdict, Michelle Chaudhry, President of the Cecil & Iris Chaudhry Foundation (CICF) in Lahore said, ‘There is no doubt that the rule of law has been upheld and justice has prevailed. However, unfortunately an innocent woman has had to lose nine precious years of her life; she and her family have had to endure extremely traumatic circumstances for a crime that was never committed. This in itself demands for the authorities to revisit Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and take concrete measures to curb its misuse.’

Reprisals for a ‘crime that was never committed’
Following Asia Bibi’s acquittal, Islamist groups gathered in protest in cities across the country. Extra security was posted at schools and churches, while major roads were blocked in Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Islamabad. A few days later the government signed a deal with an Islamist group in order to halt the protests. The government agreed to place Asia Bibi on the Exit Control List (ECL) which prevents her from leaving the country, and, even more worryingly, has also allowed a judicial review of the Supreme Court’s
decision.

‘A death sentence even if they are released’
Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws essentially criminalise anyone who insults Islam. They are regularly misused to settle personal scores or business disputes, and though most blasphemy allegations are made against Muslims, when non-Muslims are accused their entire community can suffer. The attack on Joseph Colony five years ago - in which 170 houses were torched by a mob, leaving more than 100 families displaced – occurred after a young Christian man was accused of blasphemy. Sawan Masih is still on death row today. In our work with victims of blasphemy allegations we have been told by lawyers, judges and activists that once an accusation is made, the victim and their family live in a constant state
of fear.

They face harassment and threats even when the allegation is found to be false. They cannot resume normal life, because there is nowhere safe for them to live. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, ‘Anyone even accused of blasphemy practically carries a death sentence even if they are released.’ Asia Bibi’s acquittal is a triumph for justice, but her future, and that of her family, remains very uncertain.

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We believe no one should suffer discrimination, harassment or persecution because of their beliefs