By NBC's Carol Grisanti and Fakhar ur Rehman
ITTAN WALLI, Pakistan – In early November, in the dusty city of Sheikhupura in Pakistan’s heartland, Asia Bibi, an illiterate Christian woman and mother of five, was sentenced to death by hanging under the country’s blasphemy laws.
Her crime? She allegedly insulted the Prophet Muhammad.
Almost immediately, the death sentence unleashed international condemnation, and put pressure on Pakistan’s government to overturn the verdict and amend the country’s blasphemy laws – a holdover from a 19th century penal code designed to protect minority religious sects during British colonial times.
The law was radicalized during the 1980’s under the military dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq. He imposed life sentences, even death, for blasphemy to appease the mullahs and legitimize his grip on power.
Pope Benedict XVI appealed for clemency but hard-line Islamic groups have threatened civil war if the government pardons Bibi or attempts to amend the law.
Bibi’s husband, 48-year-old Ashiq Masih, is desperate, convinced radical Islamic groups are aiming to kill the family. He has gone into hiding, along with his children, sheltered inside a Christian colony in an outlying district of Sheikhupura. Masih insists his wife was framed, a victim of old score-settling in their village of Ittan Walli, where his family was just one of two Christian families.
“She was picking berries with other women, when she was sent to get water,” her husband said. “One of the women refused to drink the water after my wife dipped her cup into the bucket. This woman said it was contaminated because it was touched by a Christian.” According to Masih, all the women then started taunting his wife, and shouting insults against her mother and their children. Bibi just repeated the same insults back at them. “The name of the holy prophet never came up.”
At the time, Masih said he thought that was the end of it. It wasn’t.
“Five days later, the local cleric came to our house, followed by an angry mob, and dragged my wife away,” he said, recalling the incident that took place in June 2009. They beat her, ripped off her clothes and accused her of insulting the prophet. Then they locked her up in a house until the police came to take her away.”
Anjum Naveed / AP
Ashif Masih, right, husband of Christian woman Asia Bibi who had been sentenced to death, and daughters Sidra Shahzadi and Isham Ashiq listen to Pakistani minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, unseen, during a meeting in Islamabad, Pakistan on Nov. 24.
In an interview with NBC News, Qari Muhammed Salem, the local cleric in Ittan Walli, accused Masih of lying. “I talked to everyone who witnessed this incident and she is guilty,” he said. “She confessed to the crime in front of the entire village and then she begged for forgiveness,” he insisted.
“She even told me she said these things in rage during a heated argument and would never think of blasphemy,” he said. Salem said he called the police to lock her up, only to protect her, because the angry mob would have killed her.
Najma Yousaf, a sister of Bibi, still lives in the family home in Ittan Walli, a rural village of approximately 10,000 inhabitants, almost all Muslim. “I’m not afraid to live in our house,” she said. “The villagers are all very nice with me, my husband and our children. They are angry with my sister.”
Bibi, 45, is the first woman condemned to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. While no one has ever been executed, most of the accused – all men – languish in prison alone and forgotten. Human rights groups point out that the law is a convenient way to settle scores, often among the Christian community who total about 2 million of Pakistan’s 175 million people.
In a statement released from New York, Human Rights Watch, called for Pakistan’s government to immediately introduce legislation to repeal the blasphemy laws.
“Asia Bibi has suffered greatly and should never have been put behind bars,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The injustice and fear the blasphemy law spawns will only cease when this heinous law is repealed.”
Other minority groups are targets too. The Ahmadis, an Islamic minority sect that has been declared non-Muslim under Pakistani law, are often the victims of intimidation and violence and incarcerated under the blasphemy laws. In addition, they are prime targets of the Pakistani Taliban who, in the past, have blown up their mosques, killing hundreds, according to Human Rights Watch.
STR/PAKISTAN / Reuters
Protesters hold up placards demanding the release of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, at a rally in Faisalabad, in Pakistan's Punjab province, Nov.29.
Bibi’s lawyer has filed an appeal with the High Court in Lahore and Pakistan’s President Asif Zardari may consider an unconditional pardon if the appeals process takes too long.
So far, the Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti submitted a report on the case to Zardari. He concluded that the charges were baseless. In an interview with NBC News, he said that Bibi could be released on appeal in the high court. “We should wait for the court proceedings but if the court delays then the president may pardon her on the basis that she is innocent,” he said.
Bhatti is well aware of the possible consequences of an acquittal. Judges have been assassinated for freeing victims and several accused persons have been gunned down inside prisons or outside courtrooms as they walked free.
“We will protect Asia and her entire family,” the minister said. “No harm will come to them.”
Sidra, Bibi’s 18-year-old daughter, takes her younger sisters to the jail every Tuesday to visit their mother. “My mother tells us not to cry and to be strong,” she said. “But now, my mother is crying, so how can we be strong.”
With media reports of a possible pardon for Bibi, hard line Islamic groups have held demonstrations in cities across Pakistan. They’ve warned Zardari of a severe backlash if he commutes her death sentence.
At one rally, organized by “The Movement for the Protection of the Prophet’s Honor” denounced any attempt to change the law. “We are ready to sacrifice our life for the prophet,” they chanted.