Christian Woman Acquitted of Blasphemy Forced to Remain in Pakistan, As Radicals Demand Her Death

Patrick Goodenough | November 5, 2018 | 4:18am EST
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Pakistani Muslims protest the acquittal of Asia Bibi and call for her death, in Swat on November 2, 2018. (Screen capture: YouTube)

( – Pakistani governments have a history of capitulating to radicals who threaten violence or unrest to demand concessions, and the new government of Prime Minister Imran Khan is proving no exception, as zealots seek to prevent the safe departure of a Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy.

On Friday authorities struck a deal with protesting extremists, who agreed to suspend their at-times violent demonstrations in return for the government placing Asia Bibi on an “exit control list” to bar her from leaving Pakistan. The list is usually used to prevent flight by wanted terrorists and criminals (including former political leaders accused of corruption or other offenses.)

The government also agreed not to oppose efforts by the hardliners to appeal against last Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling acquitting Asia Bibi of blaspheming Mohammed and ordering her release. Incarcerated since 2009, she was the first Christian woman sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

The agreement marked a reversal by a government whose prime minister just two days issued a televised statement warning the radicals blocking highways to protest the acquittal that “the state will fulfil its duty [to] protect people’s property and lives.”

Friday’s deal was agreed with Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a group whose leaders had called for the judges responsible for the verdict to be killed – together with Asia Bibi – and described both the prime minister and head of the military as enemies of Islam.

Asia Bibi’s husband Ashiq Masih, who is in Britain with their daughters, posted a video clip appealing to the leaders of Britain, the United States and Canada to help his wife and other family members to leave Pakistan safely.

A British lawmaker who chairs the House of Commons’ foreign affairs select committee, Tom Tugendhat, said Sunday he would urge the Foreign Office to seek assurance from Pakistan that Asia Bibi would be safe.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad said Monday the mission “continues to follow the case closely.”

Dozens of Pakistanis, including minority Christians and Ahmadis, have been killed by mobs or individual assailants over blasphemy accusations. Although Muslims account for the largest number of blasphemy convictions in the world’s second most-populous Islamic nation, non-Muslim minorities are disproportionately affected.

Among those killed have been a High Court judge who acquitted a man convicted of blasphemy, a lawyer who defended a client accused of blasphemy, and two prominent politicians who came out in support of Asia Bibi in the months following her conviction and death sentence.

Asia Bibi is reported to still be in prison in Punjab province, five days after the top court instructed that she be “released from the jail forthwith if not required to be detained in connection with any other case.”

On Saturday, Asia Bibi’s lawyer Saif Mulook confirmed to Reuters that he had left the country, fearing for his life.

Mulook told the wire service from an undisclosed location that he would return home to continue working in support of his client, if the state provided him with protection.

Also over the weekend government officials urged Twitter to take down the account of TLP leader Khadim Rizvi, who is accused of incitement and hate speech. Twitter complied on Sunday. (Late Sunday, however, supporters had started another feed with an almost identical Twitter handle.)

‘Defending the honor of the prophet’

The TLP was established on a platform focused almost exclusively on the issue of blasphemy and “defending the honor of the prophet.” The new government’s decision to accede to its demands in a bid to restore order mirrors that of a string of predecessors.

Since 2006, governments sought agreements with the violent group known as the Pakistani Taliban and its precursors, agreeing at various times to withdraw troops from certain sensitive areas, to pardon wanted terrorists, and to allow militants to impose shari’a in zones under their control.

The “peace deals” invariably ended in failure.

Angry Muslims protest in Peshawar on November 2, 2018. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Just a year ago, the previous government struck a deal with the TLP to end a disruptive 21-day sit-in at a major thoroughfare near Islamabad. At the time the radical group was protesting a proposed law change which it viewed as undermining the sanctity of Mohammed.

In 2016, the government had also capitulated to protestors who held a four-day sit-in near the federal parliament, assuring them that it would not seek changes to the blasphemy laws or treat anyone convicted of blasphemy with leniency.

Khan took office in August, after his party won a majority in elections the previous month.

“I am not surprised that Imran Khan’s regime has caved in to extremists – this is a commonly recurring socio-political trend in Pakistan,” British Pakistani Christian Association chairman Wilson Chowdhry said in comments on the group’s website.

“Politicians have historically been hijacked by either the extremist groups within the nation or the military, this situation is simply the status quo as far as I am concerned.”

The Karachi daily Dawn published several op-eds and columns over recent days critical of the government’s handling of the unrest.

In a column Sunday, security analyst Muhammad Amir Rana argued that “State appeasement only provides oxygen to extremist groups, increasing their bargaining power.”

A Saturday Dawn editorial lamented that “yet another government has capitulated to violent religious extremists who neither believe in democracy, nor the Constitution.”

In another editorial, a day earlier, the paper said that, following Khan’s initial statement about the protest, his “government’s flicker of resolve appears to have been extinguished overnight and a familiar set of excuses and justifications have been deployed to once again coddle and accommodate violent religious extremists.”

Every year since 2002, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has urged the executive branch to blacklist Pakistan for egregious religious freedom violations under U.S. law. Every year the State Department has demurred, although last year the Trump administration for the first time placed Pakistan on a second-tier watchlist.

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