January 28, 2019

Can Asia Bibi remain acquitted of blasphemy in Pakistan?

By Andrea Picciotti-Bayer *
Pakistanis protest Nov. 2, 2018 in Lahore, shortly after the nation's supreme court acquitted Asia Bibi of blasphemy charges. Credit: AMSyed/Shutterstock.
Pakistanis protest Nov. 2, 2018 in Lahore, shortly after the nation's supreme court acquitted Asia Bibi of blasphemy charges. Credit: AMSyed/Shutterstock.

This Tuesday a three-judge panel of Pakistan’s Supreme Court will decide whether to reconsider its acquittal of a Pakistani Christian mother-of-five on charges of blasphemy.  
 
Yes, you read that right. One of our allies in the fight against terror may be having second thoughts on whether a middle-aged mother-of-five deserves to be put to death for defending herself and her faith.
 
Asia Bibi is a Christian, a Roman Catholic to be precise, who lived in Pakistan’s  predominantly Muslim province of Punjab. This peasant woman worked in a berry field to help her husband support their children. Asia’s status as a religious minority was not a “protected” one. Far from it. She suffered constant insults from neighbors, even though they, too, shared in the same suffering that comes with extreme poverty.
 
One day, while working in that berry field, Asia went to the well for some water. She drank from the common cup available to those working the land. In that moment — in that simple human act of relieving one’s thirst—a series of dreadful events unfolded.  
 
A co-worker in the berry field confronted her and said that Asia —a Christian —could not drink from the same cup as the other Muslims. Asia was “unclean.” Asia spoke her mind. She defended her faith. Later that day neighbors beat Asia when she returned home. Her persecutors claimed Asia confessed to having uttered derogatory remarks about the prophet Muhammad when confronted at the well in the berry field. And the next day the local cleric, Qari Muhammad Salaam, filed a complaint against Asia.       
 
Asia was charged and convicted of blasphemy in 2010. In Pakistan, a blasphemy conviction carries a mandatory death sentence. The local authorities  sentenced her to death by hanging.  
 
Asia languished in prison for more than eight years. Prison officials gave her food to cook, knowing that she would likely be poisoned if she ate with the general prison population. They also placed her in solitary confinement and limited her contact with anyone outside of her immediate family. The years of imprisonment must surely have taken their toll.


Most Pakistanis accused of blasphemy don’t live long. Mob rule executes the death sentence long before the government has the chance to do so. In last year’s annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Freedom once again recommended Pakistan be identified as “a country of particular concern.” It specifically mentioned Asia as an example of the “continued misuse [of blasphemy laws] against religious minorities and progressive Muslims.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heeded the Commission’s advice and listed Pakistan among those countries guilty of severe religious freedom violations.

Nevertheless, last October a three-judge panel of the Pakistani Supreme Court overturned Asia’s conviction. It said that the prosecution had “categorically failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.” Not only that, but the case was based on flimsy evidence and proper procedures had not been followed. The panel pointed out that Asia’s alleged confession had been made in front of a crowd “threatening to kill her.”   Asia Bibi was, it seemed, free at last …

… but her freedom proved fleeting.
 
Qari Muhammad Salaam, the local cleric who brought the complaint against Asia, demanded she be prevented from leaving Pakistan and led widespread protests of the ruling. He also filed a petition for reconsideration by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. Salaam argued that the Supreme Court panel failed to meet the standards of jurisprudence or Islamic law and the "normal principle of justice with reference to application in blasphemy laws.”


Well aware that some of their countrymen are violently intolerant of Pakistan’s religious minorities, the three judges will decide Tuesday whether to defend their October 2018 acquittal or back away from it. It’s a moment for Pakistan, but for the United States and the rest of the civilized world, too. In one of our allies in the war on terror, the rule of law and religious freedom, to say nothing of a mother-of-five’s life, hang in the balance. Will the story of Asia Bibi end in her freedom or martyrdom?

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is Legal Advisor for The Catholic Association Foundation. Her legal career has been dedicated to civil rights advocacy.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.