By Saif ul Malook
January 04, 2019
Asia Bibi spent Christmas in a safe house
in Islamabad, Pakistan. I hope that’s the last time my client, a Catholic, must
spend the holiday unable to live and worship in freedom.
Two months ago, a three- justice panel of
the Pakistani Supreme Court overturned her 2010 conviction and death sentence
Protests by religious hardliners over the
possibility that she would be allowed to leave Pakistan prompted the government
to bar her, at least temporarily, from departing.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government
appears determined to ensure the safety of Asia and her husband, Ashiq Masih,
and the couple’s two daughters, until another country agrees to take them in.
Canada is their most likely destination.
Asia was still in prison, not in the
courtroom, when the decision was handed down on October 31. Enraged protesters
poured into the streets in several Pakistani cities.
Police escorted me from the courthouse, and
I spent three days in hiding, aided by friends in the diplomatic community,
before I boarded a flight for the Netherlands still wearing my Pakistani
lawyer’s uniform of a black suit and white shirt.
I had insisted I wouldn’t leave without
Asia, but my friends swore they would take good care of her. It was my life
they feared for at that moment.
My last meeting with Asia had taken place
on October 10 at the women’s prison in Multan, about 400 kilometres from my
home in the eastern city of Lahore, where she had been incarcerated for the
past five years.
Contrary to reports of her terrible
treatment in prison, Asia seemed to have found a quiet life of sisterhood with
her guards, who allowed her a television set and more time outside her cell
than usually granted to death-row inmates.
The relatively benign treatment might have
resulted from pressure by Western governments, but I sensed it was because the
guards recognised Asia’s bravery and human spirit.
Asia is not a sophisticated person. She was
born 47 years ago to a poor family in a dusty farming village in the Punjab
province and never sat in a classroom for a single day of her life.
But she was helped by her strong religious
faith when she ran afoul of blasphemy laws often exploited by religious
extremists and ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.
She was working on a berry farm in June
2009 with several Muslim women when a dispute broke out because Asia had filled
a jug of water for her co- workers.
The women refused to drink water from a
utensil touched by a choorhi, a derogatory word for a Christian. Apparently
incensed that a lowly Christian woman had argued with them, two of the women
who later appeared as witnesses in the case said Asia had insulted the Prophet
Mohammad (PBUH) and the Quran.
Local clerics began denouncing her. An
enraged mob beat her and dragged her to a police station, saying she had
confessed to blasphemy.
Asia was sentenced to death by a district
court in 2010. She had legal representation in name only, because competent
lawyers often fear to take on blasphemy cases.
At least 70 people, including defendants,
lawyers and judges, have been killed by vigilantes or lynch mobs since
blasphemy laws were strengthened in the 1980s under the military dictator Gen.
Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.
A lawyers group that offers free legal
advice to complainants is known to pack courtrooms with clerics and raucous supporters
who try to bully judges into handing out convictions.
In 2011, Salman Taseer, the prominent
governor of Punjab and a critic of the blasphemy laws who had visited Asia in
prison and promised to lobby for her pardon, was assassinated by one of his own
A few months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, a
Christian and a Cabinet minister for minorities who had also spoken up for
Asia, was murdered. I took on Asia’s case in 2014.
I’m a lawyer, and I do not want to see
anyone falsely convicted of a crime, much less hanged for it.
The Supreme Court granted a petition to
appeal her case, and in 2015 the death sentence was suspended. In October, I
was notified that the final appeal would be heard. The justices’ ruling for
Asia, citing insufficient evidence, took great courage.
I think I will have to stay away from
Pakistan for at least two years before it will be safe to return. Until then, I
will live with friends in the Netherlands or with my daughter in Britain. But I
yearn to return home to continue defending victims of the blasphemy laws.
Asia had rarely ventured far from her
village before being imprisoned, so beginning a new life in another country
would be a challenge for her.
But she has shown remarkable strength
throughout this ordeal, and I am confident that she will succeed.
Saif ul Malook, a lawyer, represented Asia Bibi in the successful appeal
of her blasphemy conviction. Mehreen Zahra-Malik, a former Reuters
correspondent based in Islamabad, assisted in the preparation of this op-ed.