Pakistani protesters shout slogans against Asia Bibi, who is facing the death sentence for blasphemy. AFP Photo /Asif Hassan
Pakistani protesters shout slogans against Asia Bibi, who is facing the death sentence for blasphemy. AFP Photo /Asif Hassan

Woman sentenced to death over a cup of water

THE plight of Asia Bibi is symbolic of the persecution of Christians in Pakistan and much of the Middle East and beyond, writes Rita Panahi.

Bibi is a mother of five who has been sentenced to death and spent close to a decade in prison on trumped-up blasphemy charges - although the evidence suggests her real crime was being Christian in an Islamic country intolerant of religious minorities.

Blasphemy laws are backward and have no place in a civilised country. But Bibi did not insult the prophet Muhammad, she simply had a drink of water in the sweltering heat of a summer day in Punjab.

 

Asia Bibi, who faces the death penalty for blasphemy.
Asia Bibi, who faces the death penalty for blasphemy.

 

Working as a farm hand, she was sent to fetch water and made the mistake of drinking from a cup shared by her Muslim co-workers.

She was immediately accused of "defiling the water" as well as the water supply with her filthy Christianity; then all hell broke loose when she stood up for her beliefs.

Soon the row involved a woman who had an ongoing dispute with Bibi and from there accusations of blasphemy were made. Then a lynch mob demanded Bibi convert to Islam. She was beaten bloody in front of her terrified children until police intervened and arrested her.

Since that day in 2009, she has been in prison, in solitary confinement, in a 2.4 by 3m cell without a window.

Bibi can't mix with other prisoners for fear that she'll be killed, which is often the fate of those accused of blasphemy in Pakistan.

In 2010, she was sentenced to death by hanging and last week, after years of delays, her final appeal was heard in the Supreme Court; but there has been no verdict from the three-judge panel. It is hoped their judgment will be released in a few days.

Bibi's lawyer, Saiful Mulook, argued that "the statements of the Muslim women, Asma and Isma, were found to be contradictory" and that "the investigation was faulty and grounded in malicious intent".

If the appeal fails and the death sentence is upheld, then her only hope is being granted clemency by Pakistani President Arif Alvi.

One wonders whether the continual delays are a way to avoid the backlash that would come from the international community if she were hanged, or the backlash that would come from local Islamists if she were spared.

More than nine years in solitary confinement have taken a toll on Bibi who is said to be frail. There have been reports that she has suffered abuse at the hands of prison guards. She is granted only 15-20 minute visits with her family even though they can afford to make the expensive six-hour journey to the prison only a few times a year. It would be convenient for the Pakistani authorities, including new Prime Minister Imran Khan, if she were to die in prison awaiting a final verdict or a plea for clemency.

But she has shown herself to be a survivor and has steadfastly refused to renounce her religion in prison, despite pressure to convert to Islam. "I will not convert. I believe in my religion and Jesus Christ," she said.

As an atheist, I'm not one for prayers but I wish with every fibre of my being that justice is done and Bibi can be reunited with her family. They deserve asylum in a Christian-majority country where they don't have to live in fear of vigilantes.

It would be powerful if the activists of the Women's March took a stand for the most oppressed women in the world such as Bibi instead of wallowing in their own imaginary victimhood.

In Pakistan, two politicians, Shabaz Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer, who expressed support for Bibi, have been murdered and no doubt the justices hearing her case would fear reprisals if they find in her favour.

There have been numerous cases of Islamist mobs murdering those who are suspected of blasphemy or being tolerant of blasphemers.

Sadly, Pakistan's newly elected PM, the former playboy cricketing great turned devout Muslim, supports the country's blasphemy laws. Imran, whose latest wife wore a niqab to his swearing-in ceremony, spoke in favour of the draconian laws during this year's election campaign.

The persecution of Christians is evident in the attacks against Copts in Egypt, the slaughter of believers in Nigeria, Sudan, Eritrea and other parts of Africa, and the religious genocide that has seen some Middle Eastern countries' Christian populations decimated.

Last year, there were multiple cases of Christian boys being killed in Pakistan where Ahmadi Muslims are also persecuted by the Sunni majority.

One of the most sickening cases was that of university student Mashal Khan who was falsely accused of posting blasphemous material on Facebook.

The young Ahmadi was innocent of the charge. But his fellow students at Abdul Wali Khan University stripped him, tortured him before throwing his body from the second storey of his dorm.

The police estimated that hundreds were involved in the prolonged attack which was filmed on phones.

Enraged Islamist mobs are one thing, but it is the state that has sentenced Bibi to death. So why is Pakistan the beneficiary of our funds? In the past year, the Australian government has granted $49.6 million of aid to Pakistan.

It's time that our generosity came with some strings attached and diplomatic pressure was applied for Pakistan to end the savagery that would hang an innocent woman.

Rita Panahi is a Herald Sun columnist