The First Christian Woman Sentenced to Death Under Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws Is Freed

Patrick Goodenough | May 8, 2019 | 6:14am EDT
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Asia Bibi has left Pakistan for freedom in Canada, ten years after being arrested and accused of blasphemy, and six months after being acquitted and having her death sentence overturned. (Photo: Twitter)

( – Asia Bibi, the Pakistani mother of four who became the first Christian woman to be sentenced to death in the country for purportedly blaspheming Mohammed, has finally been allowed to leave Pakistan, more than six months after the Supreme Court acquitted her and ordered her release.

Her lawyer told the BBC she has arrived in Canada, which had earlier offered her and her family asylum.

Freedom for Asia Bibi, also known as Aasiya Noreen, comes a decade after a row with Muslim co-workers led to her arrest and eventual conviction under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws.

According to published accounts, the Muslims accused the only non-Muslim among the group of farmworkers of defiling shared drinking water. After she said she did not believe Mohammed would share that opinion the Muslims reportedly demanded that Asia Bibi convert to Islam, which she refused to do.

Several days later a mob led by a local cleric attacked her. Police took her into custody, and in 2010 she was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death.

The decision was upheld by the Lahore High Court in Oct. 2014, and four more years were to pass until the Supreme Court acquittal last October.

Although the court ordered her release, Asia Bibi remained in protective custody as Muslim zealots held protests across the country, demanding her execution, and calling for the acquitting judges to be killed as well.

In November she was flown from her prison in Punjab province to Islamabad, where her whereabouts have remained closely guarded. Supporters have feared for her safety should she not be allowed to leave the country, where zeal for Mohammed is extreme among the Barelvi stream of Sunni Islam.

Asia Bibi’s case, more than any other, turned a spotlight on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which carry the death penalty for insulting Mohammed; life imprisonment for defiling the Qur’an; and shorter jail terms for insulting any of Mohammed’s wives, relatives or “companions.”

Christians, Ahmadis – members of a Muslim sect considered heretical by mainstream Muslims – and other minorities have been disproportionately targeted under the laws, and people accused of blasphemy have often been attacked – and sometimes killed – by enraged mobs.

Lawyers for blasphemy accused have been threatened and gone into hiding, and in 1997 a High Court judge in Lahore was shot dead in his chambers after acquitting a man who had been convicted in a lower court of blasphemy.

Asia Bibi’s plight was taken up by religious freedom advocates around the world – and in Pakistan, where two high-profile supporters were murdered.

In 2011, the Muslim governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by a Barelvi bodyguard, after speaking out in support of Bibi.

The killer, who shot Taseer 27 times, was hailed as a hero by many, with hundreds of Muslim scholars issuing a statement declaring him “Lover of the Prophet.” He was convicted and hanged in February 2016.

Two months after Taseer was killed, Pakistan’s federal minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti – a Christian – was shot dead by gunmen who left pamphlets at the scene, accusing him of blasphemy.

Eight years after Taseer and Bhatti were gunned down, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws remain in place. According to the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom at least 40 people are currently on death row or serving life sentenced after being convicted under them.

Successive governments have resisted calls to annul or amend the laws.

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