Pakistan’s Supreme Court decided to release her, rejecting calls for the death penalty for the mother, imprisoned for over nine years on a false charge of blasphemy. Unsurprisingly, this led to unrest in Pakistan, then government capitulation to extremists, and the innocent forced to flee the country.
Over the years groups of Christians holding vigils – to ensure no-one forgot the woman imprisoned because she dared to offer some Muslim women a drink of water – have remained quietly constant. They continued to meet in the three weeks between the verdict being concluded and being announced: quiet, candle-lit gatherings, outside churches; outside the Pakistan High Commission; opposite Downing Street. Compare those to the protests in Pakistan where the announcement by the judges led to demonstrations, of smaller numbers than expected but that still managed to paralyse Islamabad, which was in lock-down due to threats to topple the government. The calls of the protestors led the judges themselves to fear for their lives.
A joint statement by UK-based organisations gave a summary of the verdict: ‘Aasiya Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi, was not in the court in Islamabad when the judgment was read by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar. The bench of three judges did not find the evidence against her compelling enough and overturned the earlier judgments by the High Court and Trial Court.
‘It is ironical that in the Arabic language the appellant’s name Asia means “sinful”,’ read the judgment written by Justice Asif Khosa, ‘but in the circumstances of the present case she appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, “more sinned against than sinning”.’
In their 56-page ruling, the prosecution was said to have categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt and that the evidence was flimsy and inconsistent. They ended their judgment with a verse from the Abu Dawud, a widely respected collection of hadiths by Muhammed, which calls on Muslims to be kind to non-Muslims’
The son of the governor killed because he had tried to defend Asia Bibi called the verdict a ‘victory for Pakistan and millions of marginalised Pakistanis’. However, it was not until 8 November that Asia was reported to have left the prison. Some suggested the three weeks between the decision being made and the announcement should have been used to find her asylum overseas. But this would have meant the Pakistan Government recognising that it could not control the extreme elements within its society. Her own lawyer fled the country on 3 November.
No offer from UK
Within days, the initial positive comments to the ruling by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan had been turned into him capitulating to hardliners and imposing a travel ban on Asia. This quelled the riots. He also agreed, in an unprecedented move, to hear a petition to overturn the verdict. Calls were made for a country to provide her and her family with asylum. It has been reported that Britain has not offered her family asylum as it is concerned about political unrest and attacks on embassies and civilians in Pakistan.
The chief cleric of a hardcore extremist group called for followers to be ready to die if the verdict went in favour of the Christian. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party leader said all three judges were liable for death. The imam in her village was noted by the BBC on the day of the ruling saying that people would have to ‘take the law into their own hands’ as they would not recognise a court that did not execute Asia Bibi. ‘Someone who has been alleged to have committed blasphemy cannot live in Pakistan.’
The future is still uncertain for Asia Bibi. But the words she spoke whilst being beaten in 2010 should echo through Pakistan: ‘My Christ died for me, what did Muhammed do for you?’