In June 2009, Aasia Bibi, a low-paid farmhand, responded angrily when her co-workers refused to drink water that she offered them, claiming it was “unclean” because she was a Christian. More than seven years later, Aasia Bibi remains in prison and on death row for doing what many people would have done in a similar situation – protest bigotry. In Pakistan, it’s all too easy for people objecting to insult and discrimination to end up facing the gallows.
In November 2010, Aasia Bibi became the first woman in Pakistan's history to be sentenced to death under the country’s “Blasphemy Law,” which carries a mandatory death penalty. No one has yet been executed for a blasphemy law conviction, but since the 1980s, at least 53 people have been killed in violent incidents around accusations of blasphemy – which are largely used to target members of religious minorities. Yet in what appears to be state appeasement, successive Pakistani governments have rarely brought charges against people who violently attack those accused of blasphemy.
Aasia Bibi’s case is just one example of the law’s toxicity, but she is not alone. Junaid Hafeez, a university professor, remains imprisoned on charges of blasphemy for sharing an allegedly “blasphemous” post on Facebook. Religious extremists killed Rashid Rehman, the lawyer representing Hafeez, in May 2014. And just last month, Nabeel Masih, a 16-year-old Christian boy, was charged with blasphemy and arrested for allegedly “liking” a photograph of the Kaaba on social media.
The government’s indifference to the blasphemy law, and the violence it provokes, is both discriminatory and violates rights to freedom of religion and belief. Soon the matter will be before the courts: The Supreme Court of Pakistan is scheduled to hear Aasia Bibi’s appeal on October 13. The case presents the court not only an opportunity to address the injustices of her arrest and conviction, but to rule more broadly on the blasphemy law and those many adversely and unfairly affected by it.