Pakistani Court Upholds Death Sentence for Christian Mother convicted of blasphemy

Last week, a Pakistani high court upheld a death sentence for Asia Bibi, a Christian mother accused of blasphemy.  Bibi, a mother of five and a Christian, was arrested in June of 2009 and sentenced to death in November 2010 under Pakistan’s controversial code 295 which exacts the death penalty for the conviction of blasphemy against Islam or the prophet Muhammad.

Due to conflicting accounts, Bibi’s crime is unclear.  She was alleged to have shared water from the same vessel as her Muslim co-workers.  As a Christian she would have been considered unclean and thereby unfit to use a vessel in common with a Muslim.  She is also alleged to have spoken ill of Islam in a subsequent dispute. Her co-workers informed the local imam who thereby informed the authorities and had her arrested.

According to Naeem Shakir, Bibi’s attorney, there is little consistency and even contradictions in the complainants’ accounts of the alleged crime. “I pointed out the conflicting accounts of the prosecution witnesses,” Shakir told Morning Star News, “each one of them had a different narrative regarding the exact location where the local village council was convened in which Asia had allegedly confessed that she had spoken ill of Islam’s prophet.”

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a U.K. based human rights organization promoting religious freedom, in a press release called on the Supreme Court to quickly proceed with the case.  According to CSW, Bibi has “endured grueling conditions in nearly four years of detention on death row, much of it spent in solitary confinement” throughout the appeals process and “her health has suffered…she has had severe restrictions on visitors.”

The case has proceeded slowly thus far largely due to tensions on both sides within Pakistan’s political climate. Often those accused of blasphemy never have a hearing in court but are killed by vigilante mobs.  “The laws are often used to settle personal vendettas– both against members of minority religious groups and Muslims,” according to David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia Pacific Director, “individuals facing charges are frequently targeted in mob violence.”

In 2011, Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab, was gunned down by his own security guard in retribution for defending Asia Bibi after her conviction and for calling for a repeal of the blasphemy laws.  “This is a disgraceful case, it is a disgraceful law. It has to be repealed,” Taseer had said about Bibi’s conviction before his death.  A few months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s first Christian cabinet official and critic of the blasphemy laws, was also killed.  Sherry Rehman, a member of parliament who advocated for the repeal of the blasphemy laws was forced into hiding more or less.

Pope Benedict XVI, soon after Bibi’s conviction in 2010, made an appeal for her release in his Wednesday audience.  “I today express my spiritual closeness to Ms. Asia Bibi and her family while asking that, as soon as possible, she may be restored to complete freedom,” Benedict remarked.

Bishop Thomas Dabre of the diocese of Poona, India excoriated the Pakistani government on Thursday’s decision.  “The Pakistan government cannot disown responsibility of this death sentence and should overturn [it] immediately,” Bishop Dabre chastised, “I totally condemn this sentence because in my view it is against all human dignity.”

Last week, a Pakistani high court upheld a death sentence for Asia Bibi, a Christian mother accused of blasphemy.  Bibi, a mother of five and a Christian, was arrested in June of 2009 and sentenced to death in November 2010 under Pakistan’s controversial code 295 which exacts the death penalty for the conviction of blasphemy against Islam or the prophet Muhammad.

Due to conflicting accounts, Bibi’s crime is unclear.  She was alleged to have shared water from the same vessel as her Muslim co-workers.  As a Christian she would have been considered unclean and thereby unfit to use a vessel in common with a Muslim.  She is also alleged to have spoken ill of Islam in a subsequent dispute. Her co-workers informed the local imam who thereby informed the authorities and had her arrested.

According to Naeem Shakir, Bibi’s attorney, there is little consistency and even contradictions in the complainants’ accounts of the alleged crime. “I pointed out the conflicting accounts of the prosecution witnesses,” Shakir told Morning Star News, “each one of them had a different narrative regarding the exact location where the local village council was convened in which Asia had allegedly confessed that she had spoken ill of Islam’s prophet.”

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a U.K. based human rights organization promoting religious freedom, in a press release called on the Supreme Court to quickly proceed with the case.  According to CSW, Bibi has “endured grueling conditions in nearly four years of detention on death row, much of it spent in solitary confinement” throughout the appeals process and “her health has suffered…she has had severe restrictions on visitors.”

The case has proceeded slowly thus far largely due to tensions on both sides within Pakistan’s political climate. Often those accused of blasphemy never have a hearing in court but are killed by vigilante mobs.  “The laws are often used to settle personal vendettas– both against members of minority religious groups and Muslims,” according to David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia Pacific Director, “individuals facing charges are frequently targeted in mob violence.”

In 2011, Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab, was gunned down by his own security guard in retribution for defending Asia Bibi after her conviction and for calling for a repeal of the blasphemy laws.  “This is a disgraceful case, it is a disgraceful law. It has to be repealed,” Taseer had said about Bibi’s conviction before his death.  A few months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s first Christian cabinet official and critic of the blasphemy laws, was also killed.  Sherry Rehman, a member of parliament who advocated for the repeal of the blasphemy laws was forced into hiding more or less.

Pope Benedict XVI, soon after Bibi’s conviction in 2010, made an appeal for her release in his Wednesday audience.  “I today express my spiritual closeness to Ms. Asia Bibi and her family while asking that, as soon as possible, she may be restored to complete freedom,” Benedict remarked.

Bishop Thomas Dabre of the diocese of Poona, India excoriated the Pakistani government on Thursday’s decision.  “The Pakistan government cannot disown responsibility of this death sentence and should overturn [it] immediately,” Bishop Dabre chastised, “I totally condemn this sentence because in my view it is against all human dignity.”