Aasia Bibi – One Year Later

Just over a year ago, Human Rights First reacted to the harsh punishment given by a court in Pakistan to Aasia Bibi, the first woman in Pakistan to be sentenced to death for committing blasphemy under the country’s draconian laws. Aasia, an illiterate Christian farm worker and mother of five, was convicted of insulting the Prophet Mohammad following a disagreement with Muslim co-workers who accused her of tainting their drinking water. In Pakistan, and other parts of the world, blasphemy laws – which seek to protect religious beliefs from insult – are often used to stifle debate and dissent, legitimize violence and settle petty disputes, as was the case with Aasia Bibi. The laws promote an atmosphere of intolerance and have had devastating consequences for those belonging to minority faiths. A year later, Aasia remains in solitary confinement – supposedly to protect her from being poisoned, beaten or killed by other prisoners and even guards, who stand ready to take the law into their own hands. (Several prisoners convicted of blasphemy have been killed while serving time.) Rarely permitted to see visitors other than her husband, Aasia has been described as “fragile,” “confused,” “terrified” and “barely able to stand” by a human rights organization providing her with assistance. Meanwhile, an imam’s offer to reward $6,000 to anyone who takes Aasia’s life if her death sentence is not upheld still stands. Her family members, who have been branded blasphemers by association, are subjected to constant death threats and remains in hiding much of the time, too fearful to attend work or school. If and when Aasia is released, the entire family will likely have to be relocated to ensure their safety. Canada and Italy have both offered the family asylum. Although time has stood still for Aasia while she awaits a decision on her appeal, much  has happened since her conviction in November 2010. Tragically, two high level officials who spoke out against her proposed death sentence and Pakistan’s abusive blasphemy laws were assassinated in 2011. In January, Governor Salmaan Taseer was killed by his bodyguard, who believed that the governor’s efforts to amend the blasphemy laws were un-Islamic and actually warranted his  murder. Police officers investigating the case were threatened – as were the lawyers representing the state. The judge who presided over the murder trial and rendered a death sentence to the bodyguard was immediately subjected to death threats and had to leave Pakistan. Meanwhile Taseer’s murderer has been treated like a hero and was showered by rose petals outside the courthouse where thousands of lawyers rallied in his defense. Just two months later, on March 2, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minister of Minority Affairs, was murdered outside of his home. After receiving multiple death threats, Minister Bhatti was well aware of the dangers that came with being an advocate for change. Sadly, the concern expressed by Human Rights First and many others for Bhatti’s safety was proven to be all too real. Nobody has yet been brought to justice for his murder, widely believed to be in connection to his outspoken advocacy for the rights of religious and other minorities. These assassinations confirmed how deadly the debate over blasphemy laws had become. Shortly after the murders, efforts to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were largely suspended. Religious groups and political parties successfully pressured the government to withdraw a bill proposing amendments to the misused laws, and a renewed commitment to initiate reform does not appear to be happening any time soon. The abuse of national blasphemy laws continues in Pakistan and around the world. Aasia Bibi recently asked “How many more brothers and sisters are still unjustly accused …will be mistreated, abused… defendants in mock trials, as happened to me?” Unfortunately, if 2011 is any indication, the answer is far too many. In October, Human Rights First released an updated report documenting over one hundred recent cases from 18 countries which demonstrate the gross abuse of blasphemy laws – laws which criminalize the defamation of religions and enable governments to target individuals for the peaceful expression of political or religious views. Despite the series of tragic events related to blasphemy in 2011, a historic consensus resolution was adopted at the Human Rights Council in March and then reinforced with a similarly-worded resolution at the General Assembly this week. These resolutions ended over a decade of efforts to enact a global blasphemy law. By moving away from the concept of “defamation of religions,” the resolutions created much needed space to focus on concrete measures to fight religiously motivated violence, discrimination and other forms of intolerance while recognizing the importance of freedom of expression. Governments are called on to speak out and condemn hatred while encouraging open debate, human rights education, and interfaith and intercultural initiatives. Last week, in an effort to encourage governments to implement the provisions of these resolutions, the U.S. government organized the first of a series of conferences inviting experts from around the world to share best practices on how to fight discrimination based on religion or belief. Hopefully, the political will that led to the adoption of the recent resolutions and subsequent initiatives will translate into constructive changes in Pakistan and beyond – changes that will prevent the imprisonment of individuals like Aasia Bibi and so many others in the future.

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Published on December 22, 2011

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