Ashiq Masih writes to Pakistani president begging him to allow Aasia Bibi to move to France after court upholds conviction
The husband of a Christian woman who was sentenced to death four years ago under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws has pleaded for the country’s president to free his wife and allow her to move to France.
Lahore’s high court recently upheld the conviction against Aasia Bibi, who is among the best-known victim of laws that have been internationally condemned.
In a public letter, Ashiq Masih said his wife’s only hope was for an official pardon from the president, Mamnoon Hussain.
“No one should be killed for drinking a glass of water,” the letter said, referring to the incident in June 2009 when Bibi was accused of insulting the prophet Muhammad after a group of Muslim women in her home village of Itanwali, Punjab province, refused to drink from a glass used by a Christian.
Although it is not uncommon for such petty disputes to lead to deadly accusations of blasphemy, Bibi’s case attracted enormous attention after Salmaan Taseer, the then governor of Punjab, criticised the law and lobbied for a presidential pardon. His support caused widespread outrage and he was later assassinated by one of his bodyguards.
Since then, almost no politician has dared call for reform of the laws and it is extremely unlikely the present government will consider a pardon for Bibi, but it is also unlikely the mother of five will be executed as long as Pakistan follows an unofficial moratorium on the death sentence in order to maintain valuable trade concessions with the European Union.
Blasphemy prisoners risk being attacked or killed inside prison by fellow inmates or even guards.
In September, an elderly and mentally ill Pakistani-British citizen, Mohammad Asghar, was shot and injured by a police officer inside jail. His attacker had reportedly been incited to try to kill him by Mumtaz Qadri, the man responsible for the murder of Taseer, who is being held in the same jail.
In a sign of the strength of feelings among wide sections of the public, Qadri has been hailed as a hero and a mosque in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, has been named in his honour.
Masih said his wife was being kept in terrible conditions in the city of Multan and had survived only because her family was able to bring her fresh food and medicine.
“My prison cell has no windows and day and night are the same to me,” Bibi said in a message relayed by her husband. “But if I am still holding on today it is thanks to everyone who is trying to help me.”
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws originated during the British Raj, but were hardened in the 1980s when insults to Islam became a capital offence.
Critics say it is almost impossible to defend the accused, with judges fearful of throwing out cases and evidence often impossible to scrutinise for fear of repeating any alleged blasphemy.
The number of blasphemy cases, as well as vigilante attacks and killings of alleged blasphemers, has increased sharply in the past decade.
In his letter, Masih recalled how he and his family always “lived in peace” alongside their Muslim neighbours. “But for some years now the situation in Pakistan has changed because of just a few people, and we are afraid,” he said.
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