Arne Perras writes for the Süddeutsche Zeitung
It all started with a cup of water. Asia Bibi had drunk out of it, because she was dying of thirst. Back then on the 14th June 2009 she was picking berries on a field. As the midday heat was scorching and the labour hard, she went to get water from a nearby well, which she wanted to give to her fellow-workers. But they just screamed and yelled at her. Never would they drink out of a cup that a Christian had used. For them as Muslims the water was now impure. Thus the women started arguing and Bibi remembered later that it turned into a heated exchange of words. Yet she initially did not understand what danger to her would result from this argument.
One year later a court sentenced Bibi to death. The mother of five was accused of insulting the prophet on that bespoke day. High treason. Bibi was the first woman who was to be hanged charged with blasphemy. For eight years now her controversial case has been going through the Pakistani legal institutions. Until suddenly this week three constitutional judges unexpectedly set aside the judgement and ordered that the Christian woman be released from prison immediately.
Bibi, who was not present when her exoneration was read out, could not believe her ears, when she was told via telephone that she was to receive her freedom. “Is that really true?” asked the 51 year old. “Am I really allowed out of here?”
That the Supreme Court exposed errors in Bibi’s former trials, was an unexpected turn of events. In an interview Ashiq Masih, Bibi’s husband, spoke of a “ray of hope”. But this hope did not last long. Since the lifting of her death sentence in the mostly Muslim Pakistan the religious fanatics are running riot. The hate preachers marched through the streets demanding Bibi’s death and called, “Kill the judges.”
Under extreme pressure from radical fanatics the government decided to grant the possibility of appealing against the ruling. Until then, however, Bibi is not allowed to leave the country and has to stay in prison. “This decision should never have been allowed to be made,” said her husband. “My daughters yearned so earnestly to see her free, but the appeal will prolong my wife’s suffering once again.”
The lawyer of the convicted Christian must also see how he survives. Until the last minute he fought for Bibi’s freedom. “A bold man”, say many. “To be honest I was extremely afraid”, said the defender. At the weekend the news broke that Bibi’s lawyer had fled to Europe. “I must stay alive, because I have to continue Asia Bibi’s lawsuit”, he said speaking to the liberal Pakistani newspaper Dawn.
The mob on the street does not hesitate for a long time
Bibi’s eight-year long ordeal in the death-cell makes it clear how awful life for religious minorities in Pakistan has become. Everyone is sure that the day labourer has become the victim of a perfidious village intrigue. The accusations that she insulted the prophet were never proven and Bibi denies saying such words. This often happens in cases of reputed blasphemy. An argument escalates and a rumour is quickly fuelled. In Pakistan the life of him/her is in acute danger who has stood at the pillory accused of blasphemy and even more so, if the suspect belongs to a religious minority. The mob on the street does not hesitate for a long time and even the law-courts are known to yield not infrequently to the rabble rousers’ pressure.
Since her arrest fear is Bibi’s constant companion. She writes the following from her death-cell: “Every time the door opens my heart stops. My life is in God’s hand and I do not know what will happen to me next. However, it is a brutal and awful existence.”
Still she knows that people exist who are fighting for her life outside her prison walls; some politicians and lawyers who demonstrate courage. One of them was the Governor of Punjab, another the Minister for Religious Minorities. Both of them were assassinated by radicals in 2011, because they fought for Bibi’s life. After these events it was even harder for the mother to persevere in her cell.
Bibi yearns for safety: outside of Pakistan, reunited to her family, who have fled already. She wants to start a new life where she drink water without landing in a death-cell.
After Saturday’s events it is even more unlikely that her wish will become a reality. But, we continue to pray.
(Above picture from Open Doors)