Via ASSIST News Service

Imagine a life in solitary confinement, spending years in a dark dungeon, living with ceaseless agony, torture, and uncertainty.

You are isolated from your family and friends. You receive threats not only from the outside world but also from those who are supposed to safeguard you. In Pakistan, for a blasphemy accused person, fears are countless and the ones who police you can also be a threat to your life.

"Most of those who have been accused of blasphemy continue to battle for their lives, waiting for appeals in courts for years upon years; some are either put to death while in police custody with the official cause being 'bad health' or found 'mysteriously dead'. Even worse, their predators sometimes march into their prison cell and kill them while the guards turn a blind eye."

These are the traumas for Asia Bibi, an impoverished mother of five, in her 40s, who never knew what life was going to throw at her after getting into a heated argument in June 2009, which culminated in a death sentence due to Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws.

Last month the Pakistan courts announced another appeal date - today - after four previous appeal hearings were adjourned due to the mounting pressure from extremist and fundamentalist groups.

The efficiency of any democratic state rests in the institutions that exist to provide unbiased and impartial services to its citizens, regardless of their background. However, ironically, Pakistan courts succumb to the pressure to provide justice to those accused of blasphemy.

Most of those who have been accused of blasphemy continue to battle for their lives, waiting for appeals in courts for years upon years; some are either put to death while in police custody with the official cause being “bad health” or found “mysteriously dead.” Even worse, their predators sometimes march into their prison cell and kill them while the guards turn a blind eye.

Despite the international calls for a pardon for Asia Bibi, the Pakistan Government has not moved a muscle or made any suggestion to end the misery facing this poor mother whilst her life hangs in the balance. Hence the chronology of persecution for Asia Bibi continues in many shapes and forms to this day. 

Human rights groups and advocacy organisations worldwide have been campaigning for the release of Ms. Bibi, staging protests from London to Brussels, from Geneva to New York, petitioning to end the misuse of Pakistan blasphemy laws which are being used to target the members of minorities to settle personal scores and vendettas.

During his recent visit to the UK, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, was urged by his British counterpart, David Cameron, to ensure protection and promotion of basic human rights in Pakistan. While the UK Government has already demanded transparency, justice, and the rule of law for minorities, the status quo remains for millions around the world who have to battle for their equal, fundamental rights every day. Will justice ever prevail for this vulnerable part of society?

The recent spike in blasphemy cases is a threat to the millions of minority community members in Pakistan. Religious intolerance and escalating extremism has crippled its citizens who, in spite of knowing its horrors, are unable to stop it. According to the most recent report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 14 individuals are currently on death row over blasphemy and 19 others are serving life sentences.

Hatred spewed by Pakistani clerics against the blasphemy accused is so radicalising that some individuals take the law into their own hands. The most recent example of this is the case of 65-year-old Khalil Ahmed, a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, who was shot dead by a school boy, while in police custody, on 16th May, 2014.

One cannot help but wonder how a school boy was able to get access to a prison cell, let alone a gun? Sadly the police in Pakistan is often found to be in league with those wishing to “teach a lesson” to the blasphemy accused. And in this shocking case, they must have aided and abetted the incident by not searching Mr. Ahmed’s visitor, or allowing him to carry a weapon. The boy, undoubtedly coerced by others, committed an act of self-administered justice thinking that he is doing a favor to the religious ideology to which he must have been indoctrinated, in a hope to receive praise from the rest of the fold.

"There is a shocking culture of putting the murderers on a pedestal, garlanding them, and naming a mosque or library after them, and in so doing, lauding their killing as 'holy'. This admiration of the 'holy murderers' exacerbates religious intolerance, disunity, and damages any efforts towards peaceful coexistence among people from various faith backgrounds."

There is a shocking culture of putting the murderers on a pedestal, garlanding them, and naming a mosque or library after them, and in so doing, lauding their killing as “holy.” This admiration of the “holy murderers” exacerbates religious intolerance, disunity, and damages any efforts towards peaceful coexistence among people from various faith backgrounds.

This glorification of “murderers” in Pakistan is a breeding ground for fuelling extremism and fundamentalism. Such a societal attitude is a trap for teenage boys who yearn to gain acclaim from others. The young assassin, who has not been named for security reasons, is a product of such a culture.

Pakistan’s legal system is far from any recognizable democratic values. It persecutes the weak and the vulnerable segments of the society. These people hope against the hope for justice while facing threats to their security, the uncertainty of which must be terrifying to face.

A local radical cleric has put a price of 500,000 Pakistani Rupees, ($US5,800) on Asia Bibi’s head for anyone who will end her life. In the midst of these security concerns, the poor mother was moved from Lahore jail to Multan Women’s Jail. In the face of all these challenges, today Asia Bibi will hopefully face the panel of judges headed by judge Anwar-Ul-Haq for the first time to appeal against her death sentence.

The constitution of Pakistan provides equal rights to its entire people. The state has a responsibility to protect its citizens including minorities, and as such has to prevent the misuse of Pakistan blasphemy laws. The need of the hour is to start a rational discourse to promote interfaith harmony and to include peace studies in the national curriculum among the students at grass roots level.

The culture of persecution against minorities must end and the prosecution of those who misuse blasphemy laws has to be its first priority. Only then will there be hope that the rule of law will prevail and the Pakistan court will exist to provide justice to Asia Bibi, and those falsely accused of blasphemy.

Therefore, I ask you to join with me to pray that that finally true justice will be done for Asia Bibi so that she can finally return to her family, and her many Christian friends.

Shahid Khan is vice-chairperson of Global Minorities Alliance, a UK-based human rights organisation which fights for the rights of minorities. He tweets @shahidshabaz.