Sentenced to death in 2010 for “insulting Muhammad,” Asia Bibi was acquitted in 2018. Last May, the Pakistani Catholic woman flew to Canada where she was reunited with her family.
Asia Bibi left early in the morning without slamming the door of her house so as not to wake her husband and five children, excited to earn 250 rupees (less than $ 1.60) for a laborious journey of picking berries in the fields. With this money, she would buy two kilos of flour, enough to feed the family with the traditional chapati bread.
The task was arduous because it required extreme physical exertion under a scorching sun. She would only receive the agreed upon pay if she filled the crop basket. However, her basket was bigger than those of her fellow workers, for the simple fact that they were Muslims and she was a Christian. She did not protest.
At noon, already dehydrated, she approached a well and used an old metal cup to drink fresh water, which she herself had extracted with a bucket. Then she heard grunting voices. She ignored the rumble and refilled her glass to offer to another woman, who was also thirsty. The gesture was interrupted by her neighbour Musarat, seamstress and village gossiper, who shouted, “Do not drink from that water – it is haram [prohibited]!” Asia Bibi was far from imagining that on that Sunday in June, her gestures and words would make her agonize for nine years in two prisons.
“Listen, all of you! This Christian contaminated the water from the well when she drank from our glass,” said the hostile Musarat, stressing that Asia belongs to a “polluting caste” (chuhda musali).
“The water is now unclean, and we cannot drink it.”
The accusation was so unfair that Asia dared to defend herself: “I believe that Jesus would act differently from Muhammad.” Musarat shot back: “How dare you think for the prophet, you filthy beast! You must convert to Islam and redeem yourself!”
The Christian countered: “I believe that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of humankind. What did your Prophet Muhammad do for humanity? And why do I have to convert and not you?” Those who were picking up fruits allied themselves with Musarat, shouting: “You do not deserve to live! You will pay dearly for what you have said about our holy prophet.”
And so, on June 15, 2009, Asia Bibi, 53 years old, was dragged into a “people’s trial,” where she was forced to plead guilty for insulting the “Messenger of Allah.” Imprisoned that same day, she was thrown into a filthy and solitary cell, where the guards humiliated her daily and where only faith prevented her from committing suicide.
In 2010, a court in Sheikhupura, the district to which her village belongs, sentenced Asia Bibi to be hanged, accused of blasphemy under section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which provides for a single punishment — death — for “defaming the prophet Muhammad.” However, another court in
Lahore rejected an appeal and upheld the sentence.
In January 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab who had sought presidential pardon for “an innocent victim of an unjust law”, was shot dead by his own bodyguard. Two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and Minister for Minorities – the only Christian in the government and who sensitized the Pope to intercede for Asia Bibi – was also brutally murdered.
It was not until October 31 2018, in a verdict considered “strict, courageous and historic,” that the Supreme Court of the country ordered the liberation of Asia Bibi, concluding that the accusation did not present “irrefutable evidence” justifying capital punishment.
The court ruling was received with violent protests, organized by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party, the most uncompromising blasphemy law advocates, which almost paralyzed the country. On 8 November 2018, Asia Bibi finally left the Multan women’s prison in Rawalpindi, and was transported in a special plane to Islamabad, the capital.
Having to live in an unknown location under police protection due to death threats from the Islamic fundamentalists who did not accept her acquittal, the life of the Pakistani woman was in jeopardy in her home country. After soliciting asylum to several countries, Canada offered her sanctuary where she arrived May 2019 to enjoy her hard-won freedom and join her family. Last February, she expressed her desire to live in France
The case has brought international attention to Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law, which carries an automatic death penalty. The mere suspicion of blasphemy against Islam is enough to ignite mob lynching in the country. Blasphemy allegations have also been used to intimidate religious minorities and to settle scores. Between 19 87 and 2017, over 1500 people were charged with blasphemy in Pakistan, while at least 75 people accused of blasphemy were murdered.