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Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi ‘has price on her head’

ICC Note

“No one will let her live. The mullahs are saying they will kill her when she comes out.”

By Orla Guerin
12/06/2010 Pakistan (BBC News)-Ashiq Masih has the look of a hunted man – gaunt, anxious and exhausted.

Though he is guilty of nothing, this Pakistani labourer is on the run – with his five children.

His wife, Asia Bibi, has been sentenced to death for blaspheming against Islam. That is enough to make the entire family a target.

They stay hidden by day, so we met them after dark.

Mr Masih told us they move constantly, trying to stay one step ahead of the anonymous callers who have been menacing them.

“I ask who they are, but they refuse to tell me,” he said.

Asia Bibi
“They say ‘we’ll deal with you if we get our hands on you’. Now everyone knows about us, so I am hiding my kids here and there. I don’t allow them to go out. Anyone can harm them,” he added.

Ashiq Masih says his daughters still cry for their mother and ask if she will be home in time for Christmas.

He insists that Asia Bibi is innocent and will be freed, but he worries about what will happen next.

“When she comes out, how she can live safely?” he asks.

“No one will let her live. The mullahs are saying they will kill her when she comes out.”

Asia Bibi’s was the only Christian household in her village

A radical cleric has promised 500,000 Pakistani rupees (£3,700; $5,800) to anyone prepared to “finish her”. He suggested that the Taliban might be happy to do it.

Asia Bibi’s troubles began in June 2009 in her village, Ittan Wali, a patchwork of lush fields and dusty streets.

In the village they tried to put a noose around my neck, so that they could kill me”

The imam, Qari Mohammed Salim, told us he cried with joy when sentence was passed on Asia Bibi.

He helped to bring the case against her and says she will be made to pay, one way or the other.

“If the law punishes someone for blasphemy, and that person is pardoned, then we will also take the law in our hands,” he said.

“It was designed as an instrument of persecution,” says Ali Hasan Dayan, of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan. “It’s discriminatory and abusive.”

‘Hanging sword’
While most of those charged under the law are Muslims, campaigners say it is an easy tool for targeting minorities, in this overwhelmingly Muslim state.

“In our churches, homes and workplaces we feel fear,” he says.

“It’s very easy to make this accusation because of a grudge, or for revenge. Anyone can accuse you.

“Even our little children are afraid that if they say something wrong at school, they will be charged with blasphemy.”

Asia Bibi’s story has sparked a public debate in Pakistan about reforming the law, but it is a touchy – and risky – subject which many politicians would prefer to ignore.

Campaigners fear that the talk about reform of the blasphemy laws will amount to no more than that.

Beheading threat
When Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, raised the issue six months ago, he was threatened with death.

Asia Bibi is said to be one of dozens of innocent people accused of blasphemy every year
“I was told I could be beheaded if I proposed any change,” he told us.

But even behind bars Asia Bibi may not be safe.

Several people accused of blasphemy have been killed in jail.

Thirty-four people connected with blasphemy cases have been killed since the law was hardened in 1986, according to Pakistan’s Justice and Peace Commission, a Catholic campaign group.

The death toll includes those accused, their relatives, and even a judge.

In a neglected graveyard by a railway track in the city of Faisalabad, we found two of the latest victims of the blasphemy law.

‘Electric shock’
They are brothers, buried side by side, together in death, as they were in life.

Rashid Emmanuel was a pastor.

His brother, Sajid, was an MBA student. They were gunned down in July during their trial – inside a courthouse, in handcuffs and in police custody.

Relatives, who asked not to be identified, said the blasphemy charges were brought because of a land dispute.

“We are shocked, like an electric shock. We are going from one place to another to defend ourselves, and secure our family members.”

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