Release International urges Pakistan to take a stand against intimidation and release Asia Bibi following Supreme Court appeal setback. Release calls for courage to confront intolerance and repeal the blasphemy law.

Release International
Release International

Pakistan's Supreme Court has adjourned Asia Bibi's appeal against her death sentence, following the decision of a leading judge to withdraw from the trial.

Justice Muhammad Iqbal Hameed Ur Rehman stepped back from the case. He did so on the grounds that he had been a judge in the case of the Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer who was murdered for taking a stand against the blasphemy laws.

'It seems strange to pull out on the day of the appeal,' says Paul Robinson, the Chief Executive of Release International, which has campaigned to free Asia Bibi. 'Surely any potential conflict would have been known in advance?

'What is clear is that it will take immense courage to withstand intimidation and release Asia Bibi - a fact underlined by the presence of so many riot police at the court this morning.'

Intimidation

Last week 150 Muslim clerics issued a fatwa warning the government not to release Asia, and threatening to kill anyone who helped any person accused of blasphemy. And when Salman Taseer was murdered by his own police bodyguard for defending Asia Bibi, thousands came out on the streets to hail his killer as a hero.

Since 1987, upwards of 1300 people have been charged with blasphemy. The number of accusations has soared from just one in 2011 to more than 100 in 2014. A disproportionate number of those accused are Christians.

More than 60 people have been murdered following blasphemy allegations since 1990. Most were killed in the past five years. At least 16 others, beside Asia, are on death row.

'The blasphemy laws are being used to fuel the flames of intolerance. That's why they must be repealed,' says Paul Robinson.

Release International has been pressing for their repeal since 2011. Release launched a new petition after a suicide bomber targeted Christian families in Lahore at Easter. The Release petition can be signed online through the Release International website or on Change.org.

Meanwhile, Asia Bibi remains on death row, where she has been for the past six years, convicted of a charge she has always denied. 'Release has been in contact with Asia's family and her faith remains strong. Pray for her,' says Paul Robinson.

Threats

The mother has been attacked and abused and a bounty of almost 400,000 has been put on her head. Her family have had to go into hiding. Today they are at even greater risk, along with anyone associated with her case.

A lawyer, a judge and two leading politicians have been assassinated for taking a stand against the blasphemy laws.

'Time and again, we have seen these notorious laws abused to target individuals and devastate their lives,' says Paul Robinson of Release. 'These laws are invoked to destroy lives and encourage extremism.

'Merely to accuse a person of blasphemy can be to pass a sentence of death. Families have been murdered and Christians driven from their homes and even burned alive in mob violence.

'All too often, even when the courts confirm a person's innocence, vigilantes will take the law into their own hands and murder those who have been accused, often without a shred of evidence.'

History of violence

Christians make up less than three per cent of the population of Pakistan, where Islamic extremism is spreading. During Easter 2016, a suicide bomber targeted Christians at a park in Lahore, killing more than 70. Most of the victims were women and children - and the majority were Muslims.

In March 2015, suicide bombers detonated two devices outside churches in Youhanabad, a Christian area of Lahore, killing 15 and injuring 80.

Earlier, in 2011, Punjab governor Salman Taseer was murdered by his own bodyguard, and within two months the minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was assassinated.

'To draw a line under this violent persecution will demand courage - not least of all from the judges in the Supreme Court,' says Paul Robinson. 'It will take courage to do the right thing and draw a line through the law that underpins this hatred. The blasphemy law must be struck off the statute books. It must be repealed.' CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.