How a kind offer led to death sentence for blasphemy


As the mood grows uglier in the Punjab, one hardline cleric offers a reward for the killing of Catholic woman Aasia Bibi

THE STORY of how Aasia Noreen became the first woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan began more than a year ago with a bitter quarrel in a field in deepest Punjab.

Noreen, one of several women farm workers toiling in the searing June heat, went to fetch water to drink. When she offered some to her co-workers, they refused. The reason? Noreen is a Christian, and, in their eyes, the water was therefore unclean.

What followed was an argument about her faith and theirs. Noreen’s family say the women had previously pestered her to convert. Whatever may have been said in the field that day soon trickled back to a local mullah who roused a baying mob after he concluded the illiterate mother of five had committed blasphemy. Noreen was swiftly taken into police custody, but was later charged with insulting Islam and the prophet Muhammad. Last month, after 18 months in jail, Noreen, was sentenced to hang.

The plight of the woman popularly known as Aasia Bibi has triggered a controversy which has echoed far beyond Pakistan, with Pope Benedict XVI last week calling for clemency. In Pakistan, it has laid bare all too familiar cleavages between secularists and fundamentalists, with many nervous politicians somewhere in between. Human rights groups and activists, many of whom have long called for the repeal of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law, have railed against the sentence. Those who make up the country’s constellation of Islamist parties and organisations have taken to the streets to protest any attempt to roll back the verdict or the legislation.

In recent weeks and days, the mood has become uglier. Fundamentalists declared Salmaan Taseer, the colourful governor of Punjab, an apostate after he called for Noreen to be pardoned. On Friday, a hardline cleric told his congregation that if the government did not execute Noreen, his mosque would pay 500,000 rupees (€4,362) to anyone who killed her. The offer was condemned by Pakistan’s minister for minorities as “immoral, unjust and irresponsible” but was endorsed in an editorial in an Urdu- language newspaper yesterday.

Pakistan’s blasphemy law, while stemming from the Indian penal code drawn up by the British in 1860, was bolstered during Gen Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship. In 1986 Zia introduced the death sentence for anyone deemed to have insulted Muhammad. Before then, only two cases of blasphemy had been recorded but in the decades since the numbers have rocketed to 962. These include 340 Ahmadis – members of a religious group that identifies itself as Muslim but is considered non-Muslim by the Pakistani state – 119 Christians, and 14 Hindus.

Human rights groups say the legislation is often used as a pretext for attacks on religious minorities or to settle personal scores. No one convicted of blasphemy has ever been executed, but 32 accused – and two Muslim judges – have been murdered by vigilantes.

President Asif Ali Zardari – whose government relies on a weak coalition that includes religious groupings – promised to amend the law in his party’s election manifesto but many believe there is little will to push such changes through. Law minister Babar Awan recently warned against efforts to water down the legislation after a female MP from his own party tabled a Bill seeking to prevent its misuse.

Meanwhile, Noreen contemplates her fate in a Punjab prison. Even if her death sentence is overturned, nothing will ever be the same for her and her family. Given how much the case has polarised Pakistan, for her own safety she will have little choice but to seek another life outside the country.