LAHORE, Pakistan - A mother of five sentenced to death on "blasphemy" charges has lived in constant fear since the killing of Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, her husband told Compass as he came out of Sheikhupura District Jail after meeting with her last week.
Ashiq Masih said his wife, Asia Noreen (alternatively spelled Aaysa, and also called Asia Bibi), is "very afraid." Her conviction triggered a violent chain of events in Pakistan, including the Jan. 4 murder of Taseer by his bodyguard after the governor voiced support for her.
"She knows the Muslims have announced a prize on her head and would go to any lengths to kill her," a visibly nervous Masih told Compass. "The governor's murder in broad daylight has put her in a state of paranoia."
He added that threats by Islamist extremists have dampened Noreen's hope of getting justice from the Lahore High Court, where her appeal against the conviction has been filed but yet to be taken up.
Wearing a dark cloak to hide his identity, Masih was visibly nervous after meeting with her on Jan. 11.
"She was asking me about the situation outside," he said. "I tried to console her, but she knows it's really bad. She's also worried about the children."
The mother of two children and stepmother to three others, Noreen asked him to appeal for more prayers for her, he said.
"Please tell everyone to pray for her," he said.
Masih said prison authorities had improved Noreen's security considerably after Taseer's killing.
"She's being kept in a separate cell with a warden deployed 24 hours for her security," he said. "Only I am allowed to meet her, but even I am searched completely before they bring her out for the meeting. I just hope and pray she keeps safe inside the prison."
Still, prison officials have reportedly said she will be transferred to another prison soon because of security concerns.
The female warden tasked with Noreen's security the day Taseer was killed told Compass of the Christian woman's reaction to the news.
"I was escorting her for her routine walk on the evening Governor Taseer was gunned down," said the warden, who requested anonymity. "We were passing by a barrack when the news broke out on TV that the governor was dead … She stood there in shock for some time, and then she started screaming and crying."
The warden added that she helped Noreen back to her cell, "as she could barely walk and kept weeping."
"She cried all evening and also refused to have supper," the warden said. "The governor's killing shattered her. The governor's visit had boosted her morale – she was very happy and every time I spoke to her, I could feel the joy in her heart. She shared with me how she had lost hope, and how God had sent Taseer to help her. A particular verse that she often repeats is from John 14:1, which says, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me."
The warden said she was assigned Noreen's security following reports that attempts would be made to kill her inside the jail. Since Taseer's killing, she said, Noreen has grown suspicious of everyone around her.
"She's only taken out of her cell for an hour, but even then she is fearful of her surroundings, even though all the other inmates are locked up before she's taken out for exercise," she said. "One can imagine how insecure she must be feeling after Taseer was killed by one of his own guards."
Sheikhupura District Jail Superintendent Sheikh Khalid, who recently assumed charge, told Compass that Noreen was the most "high value" inmate of the prison and that he was not going to take any chances regarding her security.
"She is on the hit list of several extremist organizations," he said, "and there are reports that she might be targeted inside the jail – moreover, she has a 30 million rupee [US$350,000] prize on her head. This is enough incentive for anyone to kill her."
He said the prison had enhanced its security measures, and additional forces have been employed to guard the premises at night.
"No one except her husband can meet her," Khalid said. "I have also directed her not to eat anything given to her by any person other than the wardens deployed for her security. We are trying our best to keep her safe, but life and death are in the hands of Allah."
Noreen's lawyer, S.K. Chaudhry, declined to discuss the future course of legal action because of the sensitive nature of the case.
Noreen has been condemned to death for insulting Islam's prophet, Muhammad, a charge she denies. A week after her conviction, the governor of Punjab province visited her in jail. Taseer, a liberal Muslim, did not mince words as he assured Noreen of his support. He told her he believed that the charges against her were fabricated and that there had been a miscarriage of justice. He promised that he would recommend a presidential pardon for her.
During that visit, he called Pakistan's blasphemy statutes "a black law" and called for their repeal – a demand that ultimately resulted in his brutal killing, as one of his own police bodyguards believed that Taseer had blasphemed by criticizing the law.
Masih, Noreen's husband, said he was about to have lunch when he first heard the news of the killing of Taseer on TV.
"I had taken the first bite when the news flashed that Governor Taseer had been killed," he said. "I was stunned, couldn't swallow the food either … no words can explain that moment."
He denied government reports that it was providing his family security, saying they were living in a safe-house arranged by "some friends" and surviving on money provided by Christian organizations. Taseer's murder, he added, had shaken the little confidence the family had after the governor's assurance of support to them.
"They killed the governor for supporting her," he said. "He died for us, but it seems his sacrifice has gone in vain."