Condemned to Death for Blasphemy in Pakistan, She Lives a Life of Poverty in Exile

The first woman to be sentenced to execution under the country's notorious law, Asia Bibi, gives a rare interview about her new life in Canada

Condemned to Death for Blasphemy in Pakistan, She Lives a Life of Poverty in Exile
Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010, photographed in Paris on Feb. 25, 2020. (Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images)

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After spending more than eight years on death row over false blasphemy allegations in Pakistan, Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, managed to escape to Canada in 2019 following her acquittal by Pakistan’s supreme court. On social media, right-wing propagandists then claimed that a life of luxury awaited her abroad and that she was being backed by “anti-Pakistan” and “anti-Islam” powers. Nothing could be further from the truth. In exile, Bibi has been living a life of poverty, abandoned by both the state of Pakistan that wronged her and the human rights groups that once avidly advocated for her release.

Over the past two years, her health has deteriorated as she suffers from a joint ailment.

“I think I only have a few years left to live,” the 52-year-old Bibi told New Lines in her first public interview since 2020. Like many Pakistani dissidents and victims of extremism who are hounded out of the country, Bibi’s plight continues even in exile. She works a menial job, sometimes for over 14 hours a day, to cover her rent and her family’s expenses. The modest financial support the family initially received from the Canadian government was discontinued a year later. The authorities help refugees only for a year after their arrival, after which they are expected to fend for themselves.

In 2010, Bibi, a farm laborer who hails from a village near the Nankana Sahib district of Pakistan’s Punjab province, became the first woman to be sentenced to death under the country’s controversial blasphemy laws for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad during an argument with Muslim neighbors over sharing a cup of water. She was arrested and imprisoned, then sentenced to be executed by the local court, a judgment that was upheld by the Lahore High Court.

When Salman Taseer, who was then the governor of Punjab province, visited Bibi in prison and vowed to persuade then-President Asif Ali Zardari to issue a presidential pardon for the woman on humanitarian grounds, a hateful campaign against Taseer ensued. He was himself accused of blasphemy by extremist clerics who declared him an apostate for supporting a “blasphemer.” Still, Taseer remained steadfast in his opposition to the blasphemy law. In 2011, one of his own bodyguards, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, shot him 27 times with an AK-47 assault rifle near his home in Islamabad, killing him.

Similarly, Shahbaz Bhatti, who was the federal minister for minorities affairs and belonged to the minority Christian community in Pakistan, had extended support to Bibi and condemned the misuse of blasphemy law. He too was assassinated in 2011, with the Pakistani Taliban claiming responsibility.

Pakistan inherited its blasphemy laws from the British, who codified them in 1860. More than a century later, in the 1980s, as part of his Islamization policy, Pakistan’s military dictator, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, introduced a number of clauses that made the laws more stringent. Following this, the number of blasphemy-related cases skyrocketed. Between 1987 and 2014, over 1,335 people were accused of blasphemy. Prior to the new clauses, only 14 such cases had been recorded.

After the murders of Taseer and Bhatti, Bibi’s case garnered global attention, highlighting the growing violence toward Pakistan’s religious minorities and those who stand up for them at the hands of uncontrollable mobs of extremists. Her fate, observers said, would in part determine the future of religious minorities in the country.

When Bibi was finally absolved of blasphemy charges in 2018, a wave of violent protests erupted across Pakistan, led by right-wing groups, most prominently the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP — “I Am Present Pakistan”). Protesters brought the country to a standstill, setting fire to rickshaws and cars. Traffic blockades due to the riots forced authorities to shut schools in most parts of the country. Shoes were hurled at pictures of the then-chief justice of Pakistan, Saqib Nisar, while extremist clerics leading the protests called for mutiny in the armed forces. Police were given no clear instructions by the government on how to deal with the protesters and seemed unable to handle the mobs.

Two days later, as the unrest expanded across the country, the government — led by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI – “Pakistan Movement for Justice”) party — signed an agreement with the TLP by which the government agreed to “initiate a legal process” to place Bibi’s name on the country’s Exit Control List, or ECL, a government-maintained roster of suspected criminals who are barred from leaving the country. It also vowed not to oppose a review petition filed against the supreme court’s verdict acquitting Bibi. The countrywide protests were then brought to an end and the TLP celebrated the agreement as its victory. The official actions were seen by many as an act of capitulation by the government.

Though the government did not put Bibi’s name on the ECL, it kept her in protective custody for six months after her release from prison. Posters calling for her execution continued to be displayed in public places, and the TLP’s social media team ran hateful hashtags against her.

Six months later, she was flown out of the country in secret and reunited with her husband and two daughters in Canada, where the family was granted asylum. International human rights watchdogs, as well as the European Union, were reportedly in touch with the government of Pakistan to ensure Bibi’s safe exit from the country. The government released no information about her departure.

Despite being cleared by the country’s highest court and having spent eight years in prison, Bibi was forced to leave Pakistan in the manner of a criminal.

“When I landed in Canada three years ago, the first thing I thought was that I am here because I was thrown out of the land of my birth,” Bibi tells New Lines, her voice breaking. Her husband is unemployed, as he is on heavy medication and cannot work without falling sick. Her two adolescent daughters are disabled. She also has three other children still in Pakistan. Bibi could not meet with them or her father, who is over 100 years old, before leaving Pakistan. Her mother passed away while Bibi was in prison.

“My biggest sorrow is that I could not get to meet my father before coming to Canada. I will carry this grief in my heart for the rest of my life,” she says, tears welling up in her eyes.

Bibi misses her three children who could not join her in Canada because the support she was offered at the time of her departure was limited. She now has no one to advise her on how to bring them to the country. “I wonder if I will ever see my children again,” she sighs.

Even after three years, Bibi and her family have not truly adjusted in Canada, due to the language barrier, cultural differences and an overall lack of support.

“My husband and I are illiterate,” Bibi says. “Our children could not get an education either. You could imagine how hard it would be for someone like us.” Neither Bibi nor her husband knows how to read and write in English or French. They speak Urdu but cannot write or read fluently in it.

Even though there are government-run programs available for her children and husband in Canada, it is all too overwhelming for her to handle on her own. Being a laborer on a farm in a small village in Pakistan, Bibi had never imagined she would be living and managing her family in a foreign country all by herself.

Her case also highlights how difficult it is for people who have fled violence and trauma to acclimatize to life in a completely different environment like Canada. The country grants asylum to high-profile oppressed individuals. Yet the care offered to such individuals in many instances does not extend to supporting them through their trauma and PTSD. This was highlighted when the Egyptian LGBTQ activist Sarah Hegazi died by suicide in 2020 after being given asylum in Canada.

Asked if the Pakistani Consulate in Canada ever reached out to her, Bibi says she does not expect them to offer her any support, because back home she is still considered a blasphemer. During the riots that broke out after her acquittal, banners seeking her execution were openly displayed as protesters chanted hateful slogans against her and the Christian community. Incitement to violence and hate speech is a crime in Pakistan, but extremists groups are able to get away with it.

“Tehreek-e-Labbaik was asking the government to kill me,” she says. “Under such circumstances, how can the government offer me support?”

Bibi’s death sentence drew international outrage, prompting strong condemnations from organizations defending persecuted Christians as well as human rights groups. Pope Benedict XVI issued a public call for clemency for Bibi. In addition to the extensive media coverage, a number of campaigns were organized through online petitions, social media trends and concerts the world over. There were songs dedicated to her, along with books and documentaries. Bibi’s acquittal and subsequent escape from Pakistan were likewise covered globally, but when the media attention eventually subsided, she was left with little or no support.

“Many individuals who used my name to make money have also forgotten me,” she says.

Bibi says she was uncertain as to whether she would gain freedom even after the acquittal. “After my release, I felt like I had been moved from a small jail to a bigger one. During the six months I spent in protective custody, I feared I would be killed or sent back to jail.”

The type of persecution Bibi survived is an ongoing phenomenon in Pakistan and continues regardless of the government in power. According to news reports, at least 80 people have been extrajudicially killed in connection with blasphemy allegations in the country since 1990. Last month, a mob in Punjab’s Nankana Sahib district lynched a prisoner accused of blasphemy after attacking the police station in which he was held. His body was later set on fire. In December 2021, the case of the Sri Lankan national Priyanta Kumara, who was burned to death in Sialkot over blasphemy allegations, sparked global outrage.

Governments in Pakistan tend to capitulate to extremist mobs every time they take to the streets. Public figures, including state officials, who are accused of blasphemy are quick to avow their faith and issue clarifications to avoid the dreadful fate of Taseer. The TLP, the group that led violent protests against Bibi’s release, is still going strong and continues to hold violent protests on a regular basis.

Far from doing anything to curb this violence, Pakistan has made efforts to strengthen the blasphemy law. In January, the National Assembly passed a bill seeking to increase the punishment for blasphemy committed against the prophet’s companions and his progeny, which is already a crime in Pakistani law under Section 298-A. The bill proposes an increase in the period of confinement from three years to at least 10 years, extendable up to lifetime imprisonment as well as a fine of 1 million rupees (about $3,600). If the bill is signed into law, blasphemy will become a non-bailable offense in Pakistan.

While rights defenders celebrated Bibi’s safe departure from Pakistan, the persecution once meted out to her remains a reality for many others. In January 2022, a 27-year-old woman, Aneeqa Ateeq, was sentenced to death by a court in Rawalpindi over a “blasphemous” message sent over WhatsApp and Facebook. She claims her accuser used the messages against her as revenge after she rejected his sexual advances.

Junaid Hafeez, a Fulbright scholar and academic who taught at a university in the city of Multan, has been languishing in prison on blasphemy charges for nine years. The blasphemy campaign against him was initiated by a religious group at his university opposed to his liberal ideas. In 2019, Hafeez was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death. About 40 people in Pakistan are currently on death row or serving life sentences after being convicted under the blasphemy law.

As the fate of the victims is left hanging in the balance, Bibi still longs to return home one day.

“I know the people who want to kill me are still very powerful in Pakistan, but I don’t want to stop hoping.”

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