Islamabad: As Asia Bibi sits free at last in a secret location in Canada, the Pakistani Christian woman who spent years on death row on false blasphemy charges turns her mind to those left behind still facing the same ordeal.
Nearly four months after the 54-year-old finally left Pakistan following a miscarriage of justice that caused worldwide outcry, she has the opportunity to build a new life for herself and her daughters.
Yet while she is grateful for the international efforts to free her, she says the world should also know that Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws have left many others still languishing behind bars.
In her first ever newspaper interview, she said she had at times fallen into despair after being sentenced to death.
She also spoke of her heartbreak at being forced to leave her homeland, amid fears she would be murdered by religious extremists even after Pakistan’s supreme court had quashed her flimsy conviction.
Freedom at last
Her freedom was finally secured with mediation from Jan Figel, a European Union special envoy, who has for the first time spoken about negotiations to secure Bibi’s freedom as she was held in protective custody for months even after her release from prison.
While she is currently in Canada, she hopes to move to an undisclosed country in Europe in the coming months.
Bibi said her wrongful conviction after she was accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in a row with fellow farmhands had devastated her life.
“My whole life suffered, my children suffered and this had a huge impact on my life,” she said in a series of voice messages sent in response to questions from The Telegraph.
Still in prison
Bibi thanked the supreme court for acquitting her, but said others also needed fair trials. “There are many other cases where the accused are lying in jail for years and their decision should also be done on merit. The world should listen to them.
“I request the whole world to pay attention to this issue. The way any person is alleged of blasphemy without any proper investigation, without any proper proof, that should be noticed. This blasphemy law should be reviewed and there should be proper investigation mechanisms while applying this law. We should not consider anyone sinful for this act without any proof.”
When my daughters visited me in jail, I never cried in front of them, but when they went after meeting me in jail I used to cry alone, filled with pain and grief.
The US State Department says an estimated 77 others are in prison in Pakistan under blasphemy laws, most of them Muslims, with lawyers and rights groups saying false accusations are made to settle scores, or silence rivals. The charge can carry the death penalty, but is so incendiary that cases can also end in mob lynching. Pakistan has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy, but trials and appeals can drag on for years because judges are afraid of extremist threats.
“Sometimes I was so disappointed and losing courage, I used to wonder whether I was coming out of jail or not, what would happen next, whether I would remain here all my life,” Bibi said.
“When my daughters visited me in jail, I never cried in front of them, but when they went after meeting me in jail I used to cry alone, filled with pain and grief. I used to think about them all the time, how they are living.”
Quarrel over berries
Bibi was first convicted of blasphemy after she quarrelled with two Muslim women while they picked falsa berries for a landowner in rural Punjab in 2009. Her accusers claimed she insulted the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in an argument because the women would not drink from a container she had touched. The accusation was taken up by the village mullah and she was taken to court and sentenced to death in 2010. But Bibi said she had been made to confess at the hands of a village mob who nearly beat her unconscious. She denied she had ever committed blasphemy.
She spent eight years on death row, constantly fearing for her life, before the case was quashed in the supreme court last October. However, she was kept in custody for a further seven months as Imran Khan’s government wrestled with how to free her without angering influential hardline Islamist groups who had paralysed the country in protest at her acquittal.
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Figel, a Slovak politician and the EU special envoy on religious freedom since 2016, said: “I think Imran Khan’s government and Pakistan’s military used this delay to get the situation in the country under real control.”
He held talks in Brussels with Anwar Khan, Pakistan’s attorney general, and Shireen Mazari, human rights minister, on how to free her.
As the months dragged on, Bibi and her husband, Ashiq Masih, were kept in government safe houses first in the hills outside the capital Islamabad and then in the port city of Karachi. While given a television and a phone, they were unable to go outside.
The strain saw Bibi fall into depression and be treated for heart problems. Throughout this time she was in daily contact with Mohammad Amanullah, a human rights activist who had previously helped five other people accused of blasphemy. Amanullah acted as her direct liaison with the EU.
He said: “[Pakistan’s government] always told us it will be two weeks, or 10 days, two weeks, 10 days and like this we spent seven months.”
He went on: “At one point she had lost her hope and one day she told me, if I am assassinated or anything happens to me, please do not forget my daughters.”
Early candidates for asylum included France and Belgium, but as time went on, Bibi’s daughters were granted temporary refuge in Canada.
Bibi had wanted to go to Europe, but arrangements were made for her to follow them and she finally left Pakistan in May. Bibi and Figel both rejected earlier reports she had ever wanted to go to the UK.
She said she had never contacted the UK or asked to go there. The whole family is later expected to move to an undisclosed European country. “Security conditions are crucially important for Asia Bibi and for her family,” said Figel.
When her freedom finally arrived, security concerns meant Bibi was unable to say goodbye to her father or her hometown. “My heart was broken when I left that way without meeting my family. Pakistan is my country, Pakistan is my homeland, I love my country, I love my soil,” she said.
Amanullah has also left the country after being declared an apostate because of his work with those accused of blasphemy.
Figel said Bibi was “an admirably brave woman and loving mother” who had refused to give up her Christian faith in exchange for immediate freedom. “Her story and the highly professional supreme court decision can serve as a base for reforms in Pakistan, which has very outdated system of blasphemy legislation easily misused against neighbours and innocent people.”