Christian mother Asia Bibi condemned Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws and issued an urgent call for reform in her first interview since being released from prison after spending eight years on death row on a false blasphemy charge.
In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, Bibi thanked Pakistan’s supreme court for acquitting her but said others also need fair trials. “There are many other cases where the accused are lying in jail for years and their decision should also be done on merit. The world should listen to them,” she said.
“I request the whole world to pay attention to this issue,” Bibi continued. “The way any person is alleged of blasphemy without any proper investigation without any proper proof, that should be noticed. This blasphemy law should be reviewed and there should be proper investigation mechanisms while applying this law. We should not consider anyone sinful for this act without any proof.”
Bibi’s ordeal began nearly 10 years ago when two Muslim farm laborers accused her of drinking from the same container as them and refused to drink after her because she's a Christian.
Bibi, also known as Asya Noureen and a mother of five, was subsequently accused of insulting the Islamic prophet, Muhammad. In Pakistan, where 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslim, being charged with committing blasphemy against Islam is punishable by death or life in prison.
After spending eight years on death row, Bibi was acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which ultimately said there were many inconsistencies in the testimonies against her. However, she was kept in custody for another seven months as the government struggled with how to free her without angering hardline Islamist groups.
Speaking about her time in a Pakistani jail, Bibi told The Telegraph that her Christian faith had never faltered and also said she never cried in front of her daughters when they visited her in jail. “I used to cry alone filled with pain and grief,” she said.
Still, Bibi said she feared for her future. “Sometimes I was so disappointed and losing courage I used to wonder whether I was coming out of jail or not, what would happen next, whether I would remain here all my life,” she said. “My whole life suffered, my children suffered and this had a huge impact on my life.”
In May, Bibi was finally brought to Canada, through mediation by the European’s Union special envoy on religious freedom, Jan Figel. Due to security concerns, she was unable to say goodbye to her father or her homeland.
“My heart was broken when I left that way without meeting my family. Pakistan is my country, Pakistan is my homeland, I love my country, I love my soil,” she said.
Now 54, Bibi said that while she hopes to move to Europe with her family in the coming months. They are currently living in Canada.
Figel told the Telegraph that Bibi is “an admirably brave woman and loving mother” whose story “can serve as a base for reforms in Pakistan, which has very outdated system of blasphemy legislation easily misused against neighbors and innocent people.”
The U.S. State Department reports that there are an estimated 77 others in prison in Pakistan under blasphemy laws. But Shaan Taseer, the son of late Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, believes there are over 200 people jailed for blasphemy. Lawyers and rights groups say blasphemy accusations are often false and made to settle scores or silence rivals.
Over the years, thousands of Pakistani Christians, who make up just 2% of the country's population, have fled to nations like Thailand, Sri Lanka and Malaysia in hopes of being given asylum in a safer country.
Following Bibi’s case, the U.S. called on Pakistan to release more than 40 members of the religious minorities facing blasphemy charges. It also urged Pakistani leadership to appoint an envoy to address the various religious freedom concerns in the country.
Pakistan was listed in January as No. 5 on Open Doors USA's World Watch List of countries where Christians face the most severe persecution for their faith, with blasphemy accusations cited as one of the major sources of oppression.