At U.N., Pakistan Pressed to Free Christian Woman on Death Row for ‘Blasphemy’

By Patrick Goodenough | March 14, 2012 | 4:46 AM EDT

Asia Bibi (Photo courtesy Voice of the Martyrs)

( – Pakistan was confronted at the U.N. Human Rights Council on Tuesday over the case of Asia Bibi, the first Christian woman to be sentenced to death under the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.

In a petition presented to the president of the Geneva-based HRC, 50 human rights advocates from around the world urged Islamabad to free the 42 year-old mother of five, who last December spent her third Christmas in prison.

Pakistan’s representative listened to a presentation by Anne-Isabelle Tollet, a French journalist who has co-written with Asia Bibi a book on her plight, but did not use the a “right of reply” opportunity to respond.

“We ask today, when will Pakistan live up to its formal human rights obligations?” Tollet said. “Can we hope that the council will take action to halt the execution of Asia Bibi and release this innocent mother? There is not a single minute to lose.”

As an outspoken leader of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Pakistan has enjoyed an influential position in the HRC ever since the council was established in 2006. It plans to run for another term this year.

Tollet, speaking on behalf of the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism during a non-governmental organization (NGO) section of the program, told the HRC the “terrifying story” that began with a berry-picking job in Punjab province on a hot day in June 2009.

During a rest break, Asia Bibi, the only Christian among a group of women workers, took a drink from a common well, but when she dipped her cup back in, Muslim co-workers told her “that she had defiled the water, because she is a Christian.”

“Asia Bibi answered, ‘I don’t believe that Mohammed would share the same view as you,’ ” Tollet said.

Anger quickly flared, and “all of a sudden the word ‘blasphemy’ is uttered. Full of hatred, the women ask the mullah to institute criminal proceedings against Asia Bibi.”

Asia Bibi’s husband, Ashiq, and daughters, Esha and Esham, pray for her release. (Photo courtesy Voice of the Martyrs)

Tollet said the woman has now been incarcerated for almost three years in atrocious conditions – “a tiny cell with no windows, full of vermin.”

She noted that Pakistan in 2010 had ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) “which is incompatible with the blasphemy law.” Furthermore Pakistan, along with the OIC, had co-sponsored a resolution in the HRC last year condemning religious hatred.

Under the blasphemy sections of Pakistan’s penal code outlaw, insulting Mohammed or desecrating the Qur’an are criminal offenses, punishable by death or life imprisonment. Critics say they have long been misused to persecute religious minorities or to settle scores unrelated to religion, with tragic results.

Asia Bibi was convicted under the laws and, in November 2010, was sentenced to death by hanging. A radical cleric has offered a reward to anyone who murders her.

Within the following four months two politicians who sought clemency on her behalf, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti – the only Christian in the federal cabinet – were assassinated over their stand.

Tentative proposals to amend the notorious laws drew a furious reaction from radical Muslims, and the government backed away, with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani assuring religious leaders that the laws would be left intact.

The petition presented to the HRC on Tuesday calls the blasphemy laws “a threat to every Pakistani citizen, irrespective of religion.”

“Only if the international community mobilizes and launches a tenacious, forceful, and determined campaign will the Pakistani authorities be compelled to respect human rights,” it says. “We do not want to close our eyes and remain silent in the face of Asia Bibi’s plight, while she suffers behind bars and awaits her death by hanging.”

Among the petition signatories are Yang Jianli, an exiled veteran of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, former Czech foreign minister Jan Kavan, and representatives of human rights NGOs from North America, Europe, Africa and Asia.

The petition was organized by U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based NGO that monitors the HRC.

“With Pakistan now running for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, the government should make an important gesture by releasing Asia Bibi, and repealing its blasphemy law, which is inconsistent with basic human rights,” said the group’s executive director, Hillel Neuer.

Article 18 of the ICCPR, which Pakistan ratified two years ago, states that, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow