Raza Anjum, Muslim city Councillor from Saffron-Walden in the United Kingdom, is scheduled to meet soon with Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani, in order to campaign for the release of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who has been sentenced to death by a lower court for violating Pakistan’s laws against blaspheming Muhammad.
Bibi is confined at the Sheikhupuira Jail in Punjab, Pakistan. Her appeal against the lower court’s sentence is pending in the Lahore High Court. Speaking to me from Islamabad, Councillor Anjum said, “I had planned to meet with Asia on Christmas day but my trip couldn’t materialize due to the bombing in the Northwestern part of country.” Anjum was referring to the terrorist bombing at a United Nations food distribution center in the city of Khar, carried out by Taliban militants, killing at least 45 people and injuring over 100.
Despite being unable to meet with Bibi, Anjum said he met with her family, her lawyer and Christian leaders in Punjab.
Anjum arrived in Pakistan two weeks ago in an attempt to win the release of Bibi. He has also called for the protection of all minority groups living in Pakistan via meetings with with majority party politicians, opposition leaders and senior government officials.
Anjum’s efforts come amid several rallies involving Islamic religious leaders and political parties which have threatened violence against minorities if the blasphemy laws are amended. One member of the majority Pakistani People’s Party, Sherry Rehman, recently tabled legislation which would remove the death penalty for blaspheming Islam. However, right wing groups vow violence if any changes are made.
Escalating the tensions, one local Muslim cleric, Maulana Yousaf Qureshi, called for the murder of Asia Bibi and promised a reward of 500,000 rupees ($5,800) to those responsible for her death.
However, according to Anjum such threats are against Pakistani law. “In my recent meeting with Salman Tassir, the Governor of Punjab, I stressed the need for Pakistani authorities to detain those who make hate speech and death threats, such as made by Qureshi,” Anjum said.
Anjum stated that Qureshi has not been arrested and said, “the government should take a firm line with such incidents,” adding, “Article 506 of the Pakistan Penal Code prohibits threats to the life of another.
In recent days Anjum has held meetings with Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for minorities, Salman Tassir, Governor of Punjab, Zulfiqar Khosa, Senior Advisor to Chief Minister Punjab. He has also held discussions with the Javed Akhtar, Federal Secretary for Minorities, Dr Abdul Hasan Najmi, Law Secretary Punjab and Shoukat Ali, Home Department Special Secretary. He is also due to meet with the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, a centrist political party in Pakistan.
Anjum told me that he has been co-ordinating his activities with the UK High Commision, saying “I will soon submit a report based on the case of Asia Bibi to the UK embassy and EU delegation in Islamabad.”