Mass movement demands release of Asia Bibi: victim of blasphemy law
Over half million people have participated in a signature campaign demanding the release of Aasiya Noreen, better known as Asia Bibi, who is perhaps the most well-known of all blasphemy accused in Pakistan. The petition is floated by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), who have also sent a strong letter to the Pakistani Ambassador to the United State, Jalil Abbas Jilani, demanding that the Ambassador should do everything in his power to “advocate for Asia’s freedom.”
On 8 November 2016, it is going to be six years since Judge Naveed Iqbal sentenced Asia Bibi to death. She was sentenced to be hanged till death, by the local court in Nankana district in Pakistan’s central province of Punjab, for her alleged crime of derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed.
Asia Bibi was arrested in June 2009 from the Ittanwalai village after a group of women went to the local cleric and subsequently to the police and made the accusation against her following an altercation with her, over her touching a bowl of water, even though she is a non-Muslim. Asia Bibi was prosecuted under the Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which carries the death penalty.
In an important development last month, a Judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan had refused to hear her case citing a possible conflict of interest. This further delayed the appeal of Asia Bibi against her death sentence.
Judge Iqbal Hameed ur Rehman, who was one of three judges who were to hear Asia’s appeal, recused himself from the case on 13 October 2016 telling the court, “I was a part of the bench that was hearing the case of Salmaan Taseer, and this case is related to that“.
Salmaan Taseer was a Pakistani Politician who was killed by his own bodyguard in January 2011, for opposing the Blasphemy Law and supporting the release of Asia Bibi. His murderer, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, who was sentenced to death and hanged in February 2016. Qadri became an instant celebrity in Pakistan, with Sunni Islamist organisations making him a hero and even dedicating a mosque in his name in 2014.
The refusal of the Judge to hear Asia Bibi’s case also came in the wake of a fatwa issued by 150 Muslim clerics warning the government of Pakistan not to release Asia Bibi. The Fatwa also threatened to kill anyone who is found helping any person accused of blasphemy.
More than 3000 police personnel were deployed in Islamabad on the day of the judgment, to prevent a breakdown of law and order.
Radial Islamic groups, including the Shuhada Foundation and Pakistan Sunni Tehreek had warned of mass protests if Asia Bibi was released. Shuhada Foundation, which is linked to the infamous Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) where security forces had fought Islamic militants in 2007, had warned in a statement “Lal Masjid will become a centre for the anti-government movement if Asia Masih is released,”
After the Judge refused to hear the appeal, the court has not yet set a hearing date. Even though Pakistan has not yet executed anyone for blasphemy, the case of Asia Bibi, a mother of five, has been one of the most high profile cases in recent years showcasing the treatment of the Christian minorities in Pakistan and particularly puts the spotlight on the controversial blasphemy laws.
Islamic fundamentalists including the local cleric from her village have said that if she were ever released, they would kill her. Her family continues to be in hiding and is said to be receiving regular death threats.