By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row for “blasphemy” against Islam, has been acquitted but concerns remain about her safety, several officials told BosNewsLife.
“Finally it has happened. Asia Bibi’s release happens after nine years of detention, eight of which she spent on death row,” said European legislator Peter van Dalen who met Bibi’s family ahead of Wednesday’s decision.
“I met Bibi’s family twice. I know that their biggest wish was that she would be acquitted so that they could reunite as a family with this wife and mother,” Van Dalen told BosNewsLife in a statement.
“I am grateful that this is the realization of that wish,” added the legislator, who represents the ChristianUnion-SGP faction in the European Parliament. Van Dalen recently visited Pakistan as a delegation leader with other members of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), the third largest group of parties in the European Parliament, to pressure Pakistani authorities to release her.
Van Dalen and other officials had expressed concern about the blasphemy legislation in Pakistan that they said was misused to persecute Christians and other minorities.
Bibi, 49, was detained since 2009 after she reportedly told Muslim co-workers that Jesus Christ is alive. She made the remarks while working in the fields for a Muslim landowner, according to investigators.
Bibi faced execution on controversial charges of blasphemy. “Our Christ sacrificed His life on the cross for our sins…Our Christ is alive,” Bibi reportedly said. She spoke amid a dispute with non-Christian colleagues when she attempted to drink water from a Muslim-owned well, Christians said.
Besides “insulting Prophet Muhammad” she was accused “of contaminating” the well by Muslims. She was charged with blasphemy and a lower court eventually sentenced her to death by hanging in 2010. After years of delays, the court confirmed the sentence in October 2014.
The Christian mother-of-five appealed, and nearly two years later she was to appear in front of Pakistan’s Supreme Court. But the appeal was adjourned amid pressure from angry Muslims who packed the courtroom to demand her execution.
In a message shared with BosNewsLife, Bibi’s lawyer Saif-ul-Malook confirmed that Pakistan’s Supreme Court has “accepted the appeal against blasphemy.” Malook called it a reason to be “very thankful.” “After a nightmare of nine years on death row, this Christian woman will be released.”
However, Malook expressed concerns about the reactions of Islamic extremists. “In recent weeks they campaigned to have her hanged for blasphemy.”
Van Dalen said he appreciates the “courage” of the Supreme Court and Bibi’s lawyers, “including mister Malook with whom I had close contact and for everyone who risked their lives for her case.” He recalled that some died for defending her publicly including Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab province.
Taseer was killed in 2011 after he visited Bibi in jail and criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy legislation. In that same year militants also shot and killed Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, who also supported Bibi’s case, challenged the blasphemy laws and demanded more rights for minority Christians in the mainly Islamic nation.
More than 60 people, including Christians, have reportedly been murdered in Pakistan after being accused of blasphemy since 1990. Christians comprise roughly 3 percent of Pakistan’s 205 million people.
Van Dalen told BosNewsLife that he fears for Bibi’s life. “Extreme fundamentalists have repeatedly demanded her execution.” Bibi, who was nominated by Van Dalen’s group for the European Union’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, was expected to receive international protection.
Van Dalen agreed that the outcome of the trial gives “some hope” for “many others” persecuted in Pakistan, but also said that the EU should continue to pressure Pakistan to further “improve the situation” of minorities in Pakistan. “While everyone is happy with the release of Asia Bibi, it is important to remember that many more people suffer in prison on mainly trumped-up charges of blasphemy. Her release is a small first step, but much more remains to be done,” he said.