The 10-Year Exodus of Asia Bibi

Sentenced to death under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws in 2010, exonerated by Pakistan’s Supreme Court in 2019, Asia Bibi remains under threat of death from extremists, ill, and incarcerated in Pakistan.

Pakistani students participate in a peaceful protest. (photo: Muzaffar Bukhari)

Will Asia Bibi Ever Leave Pakistan Alive?

The 53-year old Christian mother of five who spent almost a decade on death row for blasphemy before the Pakistani Supreme Court absolved her of the charge and vacated her conviction in October 2018, remains trapped in Pakistan in official custody.

The acquittal and exoneration of Asia Bibi was upheld in a second verdict delivered by the Pakistani Supreme Court in January 2019.

“Blasphemy is a serious offense but the insult of the appellant’s religion and religious sensibilities by the complainant party and then mixing truth with falsehood in the name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) was also not short of being blasphemous. It is ironical that in the Arabic language the appellant’s name Asia means ‘sinful’ but in the circumstances of the present case she appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Leare, ‘more sinned against than sinning’.” — From the ruling made by Pakistan’s Supreme Court; Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, assisted by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan, October 31, 2018

The highest court in Pakistan has indicated it will make no further rulings on the case, in spite of pressure from extremist groups still threatening to retaliate violently if Bibi is released.

Many thought Bibi would be allowed to leave Pakistan in January. Now, sources report Bibi is, as yet, being prevented from fleeing to Canada where she has been offered asylum.

If Asia Bibi can make it out of Pakistan, Canada has agreed to welcome Bibi’s entire family, including her husband and daughters, and has promised to make the safety of the Pakistani-Christian woman a top priority.

Bibi’s children are already safe in Canada. Bibi’s husband remains in protective custody with her at an undisclosed location in Pakistan.

“Project Cleanup for Peace” was organized to clean up after violent protesters in Pakistan. The facebook-organized event brought together students and members of the community to condemn violence, terrorism and intolerance and promote peace, humanity and coexistence. (photo: Muzaffar Bukhari)

Under Pressure in Pakistan

Amid new reports that Bibi has fallen gravely ill, and is not receiving proper medical treatment, human rights organizations and religious leaders have again sounded the alarm on her landmark human rights case, renewing intense international pressure on Pakistani officials.

A young female student participating in “Project Cleanup for Peace” displays a discarded bullet casing left by violent, extremists during a recent demonstration. (photo: Muzaffar Bukhari)

According to sources close to Asia Bibi and her family, she has been legally freed from prison but she remains in the custody of Pakistani authorities.

Ostensibly, it is for her own protection; lynch-mobs who still aren’t satisfied with the outcome of the case have threatened vigilante justice and widespread violence if Bibi is allowed to leave Pakistan.

Sources also report another reason authorities have given for keeping Bibi in custody; the Pakistani government is concerned about what Bibi might say once at liberty to give press interviews.

The Pakistani government wants assurances Bibi will not speak ill of her home country once safely abroad.

“Asia has extremely low blood pressure and she is not getting the medical treatment she needs. Everyone is very worried. She won her appeal and was supposed to be out of Pakistan by now. Even though the government says she can leave, the army has all the power in this case. They are in control of her. They are fearful about getting a negative press if she speaks out about her experiences — but they will get an even worse press if she dies in protective custody.” — a source close to Asia Bibi

Students participating in “Project Cleanup for Peace” remove trash left by violent protestors on a city street in Islamabad, Pakistan. (photo: Muzaffar Bukhari)

A Delicate Balancing Act

After Bibi was acquitted in October, she was prevented from leaving Pakistan by Prime Minister Imran Khan, who promised hardline extremists a Supreme Court review in hopes a compromise would stave off violence.

The hardliners received their review: In January, Pakistan’s highest court bravely upheld their October acquittal, in what should have been the final obstacle to freeing Asia Bibi.

Pakistani Prime Minister Khan, and the Supreme Court Justices were right to tread carefully; there has already been violence, bloodshed and loss of life in connection to the Bibi case.

In 2011, the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was gunned down for his role in speaking out for Bibi. Two months later Pakistan’s minister for minorities, Shabbaz Bhatti was also assassinated.

After Bibi’s initial acquittal in October 2018, riots raged across Pakistan, several radical Islamist clerics who used the Bibi case to call for the overthrow of the Pakistani government were arrested.

Now that the Pakistani Supreme Court has issued their final ruling on the case and exonerated Asia Bibi, extremist groups must accept the court’s verdict, and cleave to the wishes of the vast majority of the Pakistani people who favor a peaceful resolution.

Moving to Modern Pakistan

As Pakistan moves forward into the future, taking its rightful place in the world community and in the global marketplace, violent, extremist views are increasingly rejected by communities across the country, large and small.

Modern Pakistan cares more about expanding education, improving infrastructure and growing the economy than persecuting religious minorities. Increasing globalization over the past years has resulted in Pakistan ranking 56th on the A.T. Kearney/FP Globalization Index.

Yes, Asia Bibi remains in danger. Extremists in Pakistan have sworn to hunt her down and carry out the death sentence laid upon her by a Pakistani court of law, no matter where she goes.

But it the extremists in Pakistan who are in the most danger; their violent, intolerant beliefs are increasingly rejected by modern Pakistani citizens. The violent, extremist’s way of life is being threatened by globalization and the inevitability of modern Pakistan, and that makes them more dangerous.

Violence may have the guns, but Peace has the numbers. Together, the peace-loving people of Pakistan, and of every nation, will overcome.

And we will win.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)