By Dan Wooding, Founder of the ASSIST News Service
MULTAN, PAKISTAN (ANS – October 16, 2015) — Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman on death row for alleged blasphemy, has been put in isolation over fears of attacks by vigilantes enraged over a high-profile ruling in another blasphemy case that moderates said struck a blow against religious extremism.
They were referring to the fact that Pakistan’s Supreme Court recently upheld the death sentence of a bodyguard who killed a senior politician over his support for blasphemy law reform and for Asia Bibi, the mother-of-five who is still on death row.
Mumtaz Qadri was supposed to be guarding Punjab governor Salman Taseer in an Islamabad market in 2011 when he shot Taseer.
Shouting “God is great,” the guard shot Taseer 27 times (it took just three or four seconds) then put his hands up in the air and said to his fellow guards (the governor moved with more than 20 armed men) “Don’t shoot – arrest me.” They did.
According to the BBC, Qadri claimed it was his religious duty to kill the governor over his support for liberal reforms to blasphemy law, but was sentenced to death.
Now, according to AFP, prison officials and rights activists have said that they were concerned for Asia Bibi’s life due to the security threat and her worsening health.
The mother-of-five, whose plight has prompted prayers from the Vatican, has been on death row since she was convicted in 2010 of committing blasphemy during an argument with a Muslim woman over a bowl of water.
Bibi, a Christian mother-of-five, was sentenced to death in 2010 for insulting the Prophet Mohammad, a charge she denies. Bibi says she was targeted after drinking water from a vessel used by Muslim farmworkers.
The workers said it was forbidden for a Christian to drink water from the same container and later reported her for blasphemy, saying she had insulted the Prophet Mohammad.
Pakistan’s top court has suspended the execution of Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, after agreeing to hear her appeal.
A three-judge bench on July 22 ordered a halt to the execution pending the outcome of the appeal.
Bibi was arrested in Sheikhupura district of Punjab province in 2009 after being accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammad, a charge she denies.
A trial court subsequently charged Bibi with blasphemy and sentenced her to death in November 2010.
After drinking the water from a vessel, Bibi was told it was forbidden for Christians to drink water from the same vessel.
Several workers complained to a cleric that she had insulted Muhammad prompting an angry mob to attack her, she says.
Bibi was put in solitary confinement last week at the women’s prison in the city of Multan, an official there told AFP.
The move came after “genuine” threats to her life were issued in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that upheld the death sentence for Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of a politician who sought blasphemy law reform in a separate, high-profile case.
“Although, blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Pakistan, the country has never executed anyone on the charge — but anyone convicted, or even just accused, of insulting Islam risks a violent and bloody death at the hands of vigilantes,” said the AFP story.
Last year a British-Pakistani citizen who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy was shot and wounded by a guard at Rawalpindi’s Adiala jail.
A Christian laborer and his wife were also burned alive last November after being accused of throwing pages of the Quran in the garbage.
“She (Bibi) could be killed by any inmate or even a prison guard, so we have to be careful,” a prison official told AFP.
A second official confirmed that Bibi had been isolated, adding: “We are concerned for her life.”
The second official, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, also said Bibi’s health had deteriorated.
“She was vomiting blood last month and was having difficulty walking,” the official added. Rights activists and family sources also voiced concerns for Bibi’s health.
“Her life is in danger because of her health and the filthy prison conditions, and from fundamentalist elements within the prison,” Shamaun Alfred Gill, a Christian activist and spokesman for the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), told AFP.
He said the group had repeatedly requested Bibi be transferred to a hospital, but the requests had been rejected.
“Asia has a history of asthma and we were told that her health condition had worsened at one time but she was recovering now,” a source close to the prisoner’s family told AFP.
According to one media report, more than 1,400 cases of blasphemy were registered in Pakistan in 2014, marking a new record for the prosecution of religious crimes in the country amidst growing protests of abuse and arbitrary arrests of Christians and other religious minorities.
Pakistan has some of the most severe blasphemy laws in the world, where freedom of speech is severely curtailed. Those guilty of “defiling the Prophet Muhammad” face the death penalty, while life imprisonment is given for damaging the Quran. Also “Insulting another’s religious feelings, can result in up to 10 years in jail.
Photo captions: 1) Campaigns have been launched to free Asia Bibi. 2) Salman Taseer with Asia Bibi, a visit that could have cost him his life. 3) Mumtaz Qadri after his arrest. 4) Protestors calling for Asia Bibi to be freed. 5) Dan Wooding.
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 74, is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for more than 52 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. Dan is the founder and international director of ASSIST (Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times) and the ASSIST News Service (ANS). He is also the author of some 45 books and has a radio show and two television programs all based out of Orange County, California.
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