Aasia Bibi breaks silence on death row ordeal

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LONDON: Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman charged with blasphemy and later acquitted by Pakistan’s Supreme Court (SC) last year has expressed her gratitude to “those who helped here achieve freedom.”

In her first interview since her acquittal, Aasia told the Sunday Telegraph that she did not believe that she would be granted freedom. “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.

“When my daughters visited me in jail, I never cried in front of them, but when they went after meeting me in jail, I used to cry alone filled with pain and grief. I used to think about them all the time, how they are living”, she added.

In the interview, Aasia also raised concerns over the misuse of the blasphemy laws which she believes continue to subject hapless and innocent people of minority communities to death and imprisonment.

Aasia had been arrested for committing blasphemy in November 2009. The charges were reported to have been trumped up and motivated by a feud between Asia with her neighbour, Noreen.

Asia’s case gained international attention when then-governor of Punjab Salman Taseer questioned the validity of the judgment against her, thereby sparking a debate over the blasphemy laws which were widely said to have been misused against Pakistan’s minorities.

“My whole life suffered, my children suffered and this had a huge impact on my life,” she told the daily. While she expressed relief over her acquittal and consequent freedom, Bibi said there were many others in Pakistan who also needed fair trials.

Following her acquittal, Aasia left Pakistan and arrived in Canada. But she and her family are later expected to move to an undisclosed European country.

A court sentenced her to death in 2010 under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, sparking widespread outrage from national and international human rights groups.

She was released from prison in November 2018 after being acquitted by the Supreme Court of blasphemy charges on October 31. Her acquittal triggered widespread protests by religious hardliners in the country where blasphemy is a sensitive issue.

“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.

The case also invited backlash from Pakistan’s far-right extremists, which led to the assassinations of Governor Taseer and Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti.

In January 2019 she was acquited by a three-member special bench headed by former chief justice Saqib Nisar, nearly 10 years after her arrest. Her acquittal led to widespread protests in the country while several major cities witnessed lockdown and businesses were brought to a halt by Islamic extremists led by the Tehreek-Labaik Pakistan (TLP).

Asia spent nearly eight years on death row and a further seven months in protective custody amid fears of attacks by religious extremists. After which she was allowed to go to Canada where she along with her family were granted asylum.

Her freedom was secured through the efforts of the European Union’s special envoy on religious freedom, Jan Figel who held talks in Brussels with Pakistan’s Attorney General Anwar Khan and Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari which paved the way for Aasia’s exit from the country.

“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.

Jan Figel describes Aasia bibi, “an admirably brave woman and loving mother” whose case according to him can lead to the review of the controversial and “outdated of blasphemy legislation in Pakistan.”