Asia Bibi: Waiting for the hangman in Pakistan

In the west-wing of the Sheikhupura prison, just outside of the bustle of Lahore, Pakistan, there’s woman who has been confined to a tiny cell waiting to be hanged. Her name is Asia Bibi and her alleged crime is blasphemy, an offence that gets you the noose in Pakistan.

Bibi, an illiterate farmworker from rural Punjab, has been forced to reside in conditions that may lead to her death sooner than later. Her cell has become a tomb infested with mosquitoes and vermin, a place where the mother of five is forced to relieve herself, and also made to eat whatever provisions provided to her.

Bibi lives in an enclosure where if she spreads out her arms she can touch the walls, an existence that doesn’t allow her to see the light of day as there are no windows in her confinement — living conditions that French-journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet has called “atrocious.”

It’s a fate that befell Bibi on June 14, 2009, in her hometown of Ittan Wali when a dispute with several Muslim women over drinking water turned into accusations against the 42-year-old Christian of making disparaging comments about Muhammad, the Islamic prophet, something Bibi has vehemently denied. The accusations were, however, enough for the local judge in Sheikhupura to sentence Bibi on Nov. 8, 2010, to death by hanging under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law.

Bibi is the first female victim of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, a tool often used by mainstream Muslims in settling land disputes or personal vendettas against religious minorities, including Pakistan’s roughly three million Christians.

Ironically, the blasphemy law was created in 1860 by the British rulers of India as a way to keep the peace between different religious groups. Pakistan inherited the law after its creation in 1947, but it wasn’t until the 1980s when it was revived by the sixth president of Pakistan, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, to fulfill his agenda of creating a state ruled by sharia, or Islamic law.

Along with making Bibi a criminal under Pakistan’s flawed justice system, the blasphemy law has also deemed her guilty in the court of public opinion.

The local cleric of Ittan Wali, Qari Mohammed Salim, has stated if Bibi is pardoned from her death sentence he will take the law into his own hands, as would many other clerics. Maulana Yousef Qureshi, a cleric from Peshawar, has offered a $6,000 (U.S.) reward to the person who kills Bibi.

Anyone in Pakistan who speaks out openly in her support and against the blasphemy law turns into a target.

Already, two high-profile politicians have been killed for their criticism of the blasphemy law and backing of Bibi.

The minister of religious minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti — who was a Christian — succumbed to a spray of bullets March 2. The former governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was killed by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, who confessed to shooting Taseer 26 times on Jan. 4.

Qadri, who is seen as a hero by Islamists, was lauded with rose petals upon his arrival at court and recently had his death sentence suspended as the judge who issued the sentence fled for his life to Saudi Arabia.

While Pakistan continues to listen to the loud and barbaric demands of the country’s Islamists, the demands of Canada and the West asking for Bibi’s release fall on deaf ears.

Somewhere in between those demands, Bibi continues to languish in a prison cell, tormented by the uncertainty of not knowing what will kill her first: the state, the clerics or her putrid living conditions.

Ali Zafar is a Toronto-based journalist.

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