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Asia Bibi, Pakistani Christian Woman Acquitted Of Blasphemy, Arrives In Canada

Monday 13 May 2019, by siawi3


Asia Bibi, Pakistani Christian Woman Acquitted Of Blasphemy, Arrives In Canada

May 8, 20195:36 PM ET

Vanessa Romo
Abdul Sattar

Photo: Asia Bibi, pictured in 2010, traveled safely from Pakistan to Canada on Tuesday, according to her lawyer. She is reunited with her two daughters who have also been granted asylum there. AP

The Pakistani Christian woman who spent years on death row after being convicted of blasphemy has left the country where she has been living in hiding as one of the nation’s most reviled figures.

Asia Bibi’s lawyer, Saif-ul Malook, told NPR the practicing Catholic and her husband arrived in Canada on Tuesday, where they have reunited with their children.

“I am happy that she has been allowed to leave the country,” Malook said.

Although he was unable to speak with Bibi before her departure, he said the Canadian embassy arranged the couple’s move. “She will be more secure in Canada,” he added.

“I think it is a wise decision by the government of Pakistan to let her go. After all they did not have any legal justification to bar her from traveling because she was a free citizen after the Supreme Court’s decision.”

Although she was exonerated in October 2018, a review petition against her release prevented her from leaving the country. That was rejected a few months ago.

Bibi, an illiterate farm worker, was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 after being accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad by her fellow Muslim workers when they feared she might drink water from the same vessel. She was sentenced to death and spent more than eight years in solitary confinement before the country’s Supreme Court acquitted her in October 2018.

The reversal and the court’s subsequent decision to uphold the ruling, each sparked days of violent demonstrations and rioting that roiled the country. Religious radicals, who demanded her execution, levied death threats against Bibi as well as the judges who freed her. They also urged Pakistani military forces to revolt against the army chief of staffs and for the public to overthrow of the government.

For their own protection, Bibi and her husband had been living in an undisclosed location since her conviction was overturned. For months, she had been planning to join her two daughters, who had also faced threats of violence in Pakistan and fled to Canada where they received asylum.

Global Affairs Canada, the Canadian government’s diplomacy arm, said it had no comment on the matter.

“Asia Bibi is now free, and we wish her and her family all the best following their reunification,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Wednesday. “The United States uniformly opposes blasphemy laws anywhere in the world, as they jeopardize the exercise of fundamental freedoms.”

Pakistan’s Religious Right Mobilizes Anew to Defend Blasphemy Laws

Responding to reports of Bibi’s successful departure to Canada, human rights organization Amnesty International said, “She should never have been imprisoned in the first place, let alone faced the death penalty. That she then had to endure the repeated threats to her life, even after being acquitted, only compounds the injustice. This case illustrates the dangers of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the urgent need to repeal them.”

As NPR’s Philip Reeves reported, despite pressure from international organizations and governments, as well as more progressive pockets of the population, “open discussion of the blasphemy laws will remain extremely difficult in Pakistan because of the deadly response it can draw from religious extremists.”

On Tuesday, Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, which has been in contact with Bibi throughout the ordeal, said she and her husband “have remained resolute in their faith and have prayed daily for their release and today God has answered their prayers.”

The group reports 14 Christians, in addition to Bibi, have been accused of blasphemy in recent years and in remain in jail.

“Since 1990, at least 65 people have reportedly been killed in Pakistan over claims of blasphemy,” the BBC reported.



The UK Should Be Ashamed It Could Not Offer Asia Bibi Asylum

Nikita Malik

Protesters shout slogans during a rally to condemn a Supreme Court decision that acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, who spent eight years on death row accused of blasphemy, in Lahore, Pakistan, Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. The release of Bibi was apparently delayed Friday after talks failed between the government and radical Islamists who want her publicly hanged. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary) ASSOCIATED PRESS

The story of Asia Bibi (also known as Aasiya Noreen) is familiar to many. A Pakistani Christian woman accused and then convicted of blasphemy in 2010, Asia’s neighbors alleged she insulted the Prophet Mohammed – a claim that she vehemently denied. In 2018, her conviction was overturned by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. This week, Asia Bibi arrived in Canada, after spending eight years on death row in Pakistan. She was offered asylum due to worries around her safety and security in Pakistan, where Islamist groups such as Tehreek-e-Labaaik (TLP) protested her release from prison by blocking highways and pelting local police with stones. TLP is dedicated to upholding Pakistan’s harshest blasphemy laws.

When Salmaan Taseer, a prominent politician and governor of Punjab, expressed his sympathy for Asia’s case and vowed overturning Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, he was murdered in 2011 by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. Qadri was celebrated by Islamist groups in Pakistan. These same groups later took to the streets to protest Qadri’s eventual execution by the state as punishment for his crime.

Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive issue, and there are justifiable concerns that blasphemy laws may be used – as they were in Asia Bibi’s case – to settle personal scores. Blasphemy accusations can also be employed to target minorities, or police Muslims. Later in 2011, months after Taseer was murdered, Pakistan’s Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the cabinet’s only Christian, was shot dead by self-described Taliban gunmen who ambushed his car. They shot Bhatti at least eight times, before scattering pamphlets labeling him a ‘Christian infidel’.

The issue of blasphemy and fear of violence has ballooned in the UK in recent years. One of the most problematic aspects of Asia Bibi’s case occurred when her husband pleased for asylum in Britain. He stressed that Pakistan was too dangerous for his wife and five children, especially following the government’s deal with the TLP to end protests over Asia Bibi’s acquittal. Frustratingly, Bibi was not offered asylum in the UK, due to concerns of concerns of unrest and fear of attacks that offering her sanctuary here would cause. It was clear that extremist groups in the country, who support blasphemy laws and would present a danger to her security, got what they wanted.

The idea that Britain should have to accommodate these extremist factions, and jeopardize its liberal values by failing to offer protection to Asia Bibi, is both disturbing and dangerous. The question here is whether Britain is increasingly becoming too tolerant of the intolerant. Earlier this week, the Saatchi Gallery in London had to conceal two paintings after receiving complaints from Muslims that the works were seen as blasphemous. The paintings depicted the shahada – the creed of Islam – over the image of a female nude. The overlay of the two elements were intended to illustrate the conflict between Islamist extremists and the United States.

The cases of both Asia Bibi and the censorship of artistic expression raises serious concerns around freedom of speech. Such examples point to a ‘policing’ of what both Muslims and non-Muslims are able to express about the Islamic faith, something which may amplify following set categories of what ‘Muslimness’ or ‘perceived Muslimness’ is supposed to entail. This has important implications on free speech, as do recent rulings by European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that criticizing Prophet Mohammed is ‘beyond the permissible limits of objective debate’. In a liberal society, who determines the boundaries of tolerance, and who polices the intolerant? These are important questions that need to be answered. In doing so, we must ensure the rights of those we need to protect are not jeopardized in favor of those who seek to harm them.

Nikita Malik is currently the Director of the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism (CRT) at the Henry Jackson Society, where I serve as a research expert in countering violent extremism, terrorism, and hate-based violence. My work has been regularly featured in the media, and my findings and policy recommendations have been discussed in the House of Commons, House of Lords, European Parliament, the US State Department, the United Nations, and other key government departments across the world.