A Pakistani Christian woman who was jailed on a false blasphemy charge recounted in a recent interview how she spent four years in solitary confinement and was periodically starved because of her faith in Christ.
Going by the pseudonym “Saima,” the woman from the 97 percent Muslim-majority Asian nation detailed in an interview with the BBC how she was accused of desecrating Islam’s holy book.
She said that the accusation she destroyed a copy of the Quran was made by her Muslim neighbors after their children had gotten into a petty fight.
In Pakistan, defiling the Quran is a violation of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which are frequently used by Muslims to settle scores or persecute members of religious minority groups like Christians.
Defiling a Quran is a violation of Pakistan's legal code section 295-B and is punishable by life imprisonment. Life in prison is exactly what Saima was sentenced to by a Pakistani court.
But after four years locked away in chains in a tiny prison cell, Saima’s conviction was overturned.
"Even now I feel like I am in jail,” Saima told the British news outlet. “You can see the scars on my legs from when I was chained."
Saima recalled that at times, prison guards would withhold food from her specifically because she is Christian.
"They would say, 'You disgraced our religion,'” Saima recalled.
Despite the reversal of her conviction, Saima now lives her life under threat of severe persecution like many other Pakistani blasphemy victims.
As reports indicate that over 70 people accused of blasphemy have been killed by lynch mobs in Pakistan (including a Christian couple burned alive in a brick kiln) since 1990, Saima explained that she is now living her life under another name since her release from prison.
"I don't even go and visit my family in case it becomes dangerous for them too," she said.
“Life has become like death,” she added. “[P]eople come here and talk to me about what happened, I get happy that they're listening to me, but then what? Nothing changes.”
International human rights activists have long called for Pakistan to change its often abused blasphemy laws. At least two politicians who advocated for reform have been assassinated.
One of laws' victims is Christian mother Asia Bibi (also known as Aasiya Noreen), a poor farm laborer from the Punjab province who was accused by Muslim co-workers of insulting Muhammad in 2009. Although she denied the accusation, she was sentenced to death by hanging in 2010.
Under section 295-C, the use of derogatory remarks toward Islam or its prophet Muhammad is punishable by death.
After spending nearly a decade in prison, Bibi was acquitted by the Pakistan Supreme Court in October. She has since been freed and is now in hiding with her family. However, Muslim radicals affiliated with groups like the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Party took to the streets to call for Bibi’s death and the death of the Supreme Court justices who granted her release.
TLP, which staunchly supports the blasphemy laws, signed an agreement with the government that requires the Supreme Court review Bibi’s acquittal. Bibi is not allowed to leave Pakistan until the verdict is reviewed. The review process could take months or years.
Pakistan ranks as the fifth worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s World Watch List.
This week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the State Department designated Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom, a designation that signifies countries where the government “has engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
“We are gratified that, after years of reporting systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom in Pakistan, the State Department has finally added that country to the list of the world’s worst violators,” USCIRF Chair Tenzin Dorjee said in a statement.
The CPC designation enables the U.S. to use tools like sanctions to help hold those countries accountable for their actions.
Pakistan denounced the designation as being “politically motivated.”