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Asia Bibi: Accused woman’s supporters urge Pakistani court to end delays on appeal

In light of recent reports of the deteriorating health of Asia Bibi, who has been imprisoned in Pakistan for nearly four years for alleged blasphemy, the article below gives a succinct summary of the background of Bibi’s case. Currently, the Pakistani government has continued to push back Bibi’s appeal in a series of unexplained delays, as advocates against Pakistan’s blasphemy law continue to cry out for Bibi’s release.

By Dan Wooding

7/3/2014 Pakistan (ANS) – Supporters of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian mother facing a death sentence on “blasphemy” charges, have demanded that the courts hear her appeal, after a series of unexplained delays.

Bibi, who was convicted without supporting evidence of the alleged crime, and has been in prison since November 2010, [lives] in solitary confinement because of threats against her life.

A hearing on her appeal has been repeatedly delayed, and sources in Pakistan report that the courts have been ordered not to hear her case, for fear of provoking a backlash by the militant Muslims who have demanded her execution.

She was born and raised in Ittan Wali, a small, rural village located in the Sheikhupura District of Punjab, Pakistan, 30 miles outside of Lahore. Christians in the district, and elsewhere in Pakistan, usually have lower class occupations such as being cleaners and sweepers. Asia worked as a farmhand in Sheikhupura to support her family.

She married Ashiq Masih, a brick laborer who had three children from a previous marriage, and had two more children with him. Asia and her family were the only Christians in the village. Before her incarceration, she had been repeatedly urged by her fellow workers to convert to Islam, which she refused, provoking the ire of the other villagers.

In June 2009, Asia was harvesting falsa berries with a group of other farmhands in a field in Sheikhupura. She was asked at one point to fetch water from a nearby well; she complied but stopped to take a drink with an old metal cup she had found lying next to the well. A neighbor of hers, who had apparently been involved in a running feud with her family about some property damage, saw her and angrily told her that it was forbidden for a Christian to drink the same water as a Muslim, and some of the other workers considered her to be unclean because she was a Christian.

Some arguments ensued. and Asia recounted that, when they made derogatory statements about her religion, she responded by saying, “I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind?”  That’s when the uproar began.

Some of the workers complained to a cleric that she had insulted Muhammad, and a mob came to her house, beating her and members of her family before she was rescued by the police.  However, the police then initiated an investigation about her remarks, resulting in her arrest under Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code. She subsequently was imprisoned for over a year before being formally charged.

Then in November 2010, her trial took place and a Sheikhupura judge sentenced her to death. If executed, she would be the first woman in Pakistan to be “lawfully” killed for blasphemy.

Her death sentence drew international outrage and strong condemnation from human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch who saw the blasphemy laws as a form of religious persecution and called for them to be abolished.

Pope Benedict XVI publicly called for clemency for her. In his statement, he described his “spiritual closeness” with Asia Bibi and urged that the “human dignity and fundamental rights of everyone in similar situations” be respected.

Various petitions, including one that received 400,000 signatures, were organized to protest her death sentence, but she received less sympathy from her neighbors and Islamic religious leaders in the country, some of whom adamantly called for her to be executed.

But then came more even shocks, when Christian minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti and Pakistani government politician Salmaan Taseer, the then governor of Punjab, were both killed for advocating on her behalf and opposing the blasphemy laws.

Meanwhile the physical and emotional health of the young mother is deteriorating, the AsiaNews service is reporting.  Now, her supporters have issued a new petition for a prompt hearing on her case.

The petition can be found on the www.callformercy.com website, which says, “In Pakistan, more than 150,000 Christians have signed a petition demanding justice for persecution victims, including Asia Bibi. Now you can join with The Voice of the Martyrs and our Pakistani brothers and sisters in a call for mercy. We hope to gather 1 million signatures on behalf of our sister Asia, who now sits in prison awaiting the Lahore High Court’s ruling on her appeal.”

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