Pakistan: Imran Khan must ensure safe travel out of country for Aasia Bibi

Mother of five remains in jail and at risk after government reverses position on her fate

‘Aasia Bibi has been through eight years of torment, she should be allowed to travel to safety, rather than being dished up to a baying mob’ - Omar Waraich

The Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan must publicly support the Supreme Court’s recent acquittal of Aasia Bibi and ensure her safe travel out of the country to seek asylum, Amnesty International said today as the organisation launched an urgent campaign on her behalf.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted her of all charges on 31 October, citing insufficient evidence. After the ruling was announced, violent protests erupted in major cities in Pakistan, with mobs blocking roads and setting vehicles on fire. Imran Khan initially appeared on television to uphold the verdict and denounce the violence, but after two more days of protests his government backed down.

A government delegation entered negotiations with leaders from the Tehreek-e-Labbayk party who led the aggressive street protests condemning Bibi’s acquittal. Following that meeting the government agreed that Aasia Bibi’s name would be added to the Exit Control List, forbidding her from leaving the country. It was also agreed that the Supreme Court will hear a “review petition” that seeks to overturn her acquittal. With no date for the review yet having been set, Aasia Bibi remains in prison.

Amnesty International’s South Asia Deputy Director, Omar Waraich, said:

“Imran Khan must uphold the Supreme Court’s acquittal of Aasia Bibi and facilitate her immediate release and her safe travel with her family to another country where she may wish to seek asylum. His Government must make clear that Pakistan will not bow to pressure from violent mobs.

“Khan swept to power earlier this year on promises to restore the rule of law, to champion the oppressed and marginalised, and to deliver justice. His party is, after all, called the Movement for Justice. But what does that even mean when, in the space of just two days, he went from warning the mob against using violence, to bowing to their demands?

“He should now reverse his position again and return to his original stance of supporting the rule of law.

“Aasia Bibi has been through eight years of torment, she should be allowed to travel to safety, rather than being dished up to a baying mob.”

Farm worker from Punjab

Aasia Bibi, a 54-year-old Punjabi farm worker with five children, has spent the past eight years on death row while waiting for her appeal to work its way through the Pakistani court system. Sentenced to death for blasphemy in  2010, Bibi was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad after offering her fellow farm worker a glass of water who responded by saying that it was “unclean” because Bibi was a Christian. Pakistani Christians in Punjab, are subject to caste discrimination as well as religious discrimination owing to their background as former Dalits who were often considered “untouchable”.

Bibi’s life, as well as those of her family, are now in grave danger. She faced several attacks in prison from fellow inmates before the Supreme Court verdict. If the Supreme Court ruling is reviewed and reversed, she could face execution. And if she is released, there will be a threat to her life from the mobs who it is expected will try and prevent her from leaving the country.

Assassinations

After Aasia Bibi was sentenced to death in November 2010, two prominent politicians took up her cause, calling on the then Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari, to pardon her. Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, was assassinated by his own bodyguard in January 2011. Two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, then the only Christian member of the cabinet, was shot dead outside his mother’s home in Islamabad.

Blasphemy laws

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are notoriously vague and carry heavy penalties. On the basis of little or no evidence, the accused can face a death sentence. They violate Pakistan’s obligations to respect human rights and allow other abuses, including death threats and killings. Judges are hesitant to acquit people, lest they become the next target. Defence lawyers have been killed in court. Witnesses and families of victims have had to go into hiding. And the authorities, instead of standing firm in defending human rights, have stood back and given ground to those using violence to suppress them.

Once an accusation of blasphemy is made, the police can arrest the accused, without checking to see if the charges are credible. Bowing to public pressure from angry crowds, including religious clerics and their supporters, they frequently pass cases on to prosecutors without scrutinising the evidence. And once someone is charged, they can be denied bail and face lengthy and unfair trials. 

The threat of violence follows many people accused of blasphemy, with groups or individuals taking the law into their own hands to threaten or kill the accused and other people associated with them, including their lawyers, members of their families, and members of their own community. 

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has acknowledged that “the majority of blasphemy cases are based on false accusations” and are driven by ulterior motives. Amnesty has found that such motives are rarely scrutinised by the authorities and can vary, from professional rivalry, to personal or religious disputes, to seeking economic gain. 

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