Asia Bibi's escape to Canada shines light on Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws

As Asia Bibi settles into her new life in Canada after spending eight years on death row in Pakistan, her lawyer is already preparing to defend another Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in that country.

Pakistani woman arrived in Canada last week after eight years on death row

The daughters of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman, pose with an image of their mother in 2010. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

Asia Bibi held the unfortunate distinction of being the first Pakistani woman sentenced to death for insulting Islam under that country's blasphemy laws.

She spent eight years on death row before her conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in October 2018.

Last week, as Bibi began to settle into her new life in Canada, after arriving on Wednesday, her lawyer turned his focus to his next court battle against Pakistan's blasphemy laws.

Speaking from his home in Lahore, Pakistan, Saiful Malook said he knows that even acting as a lawyer for someone accused of blasphemy in Pakistan could be a death sentence for himself.

"When you start this type of case, you better start developing a close relationship to God because you can go to God at any given moment with 100 to 50 bullets," he said.

'A lot of injustice'

Malook's new case involves a dispute over a text message a man received that allegedly insulted the Prophet Muhammad.

Like Bibi, Malook's new client, Shagufta Kausar, is Christian. The text allegedly came from a SIM card issued to Kausar. Despite the fact that she doesn't read or write, Kausar and her husband were sentenced to death for the message in 2014.

A Pakistani supporter of the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), a hardline religious party, holds an image of Bibi during a protest rally following the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Bibi's conviction for blasphemy, in Islamabad, on Nov. 2, 2018. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

Pakistani human rights lawyer Sarah Suhail says the blasphemy laws are often used against minorities and other vulnerable people to settle scores and disputes in the predominantly Muslim country. According to Amnesty International, between 2011 and 2015, at least 1,200 people were accused of blasphemy in Pakistan.

"The phrasing of the law, and the way in which evidence about it is collected, is really highly questionable and it leads to a lot, a lot of injustice," Suhail said.

Bibi's case would appear to be an example of that.

'Pressure from the religious right'

The confrontation that started the ordeal occurred in 2009, while Bibi was employed as a farm worker.

For some Muslims in Pakistan, drinking or eating from the same dish or cup as a Christian is taboo. During a meal at the farm, Bibi touched the cup that her Muslim co-workers used for water. A heated argument erupted, Malook says, and two of Bibi's co-workers accused her of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

She was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and spent the next eight years on death row.

Ultimately, the case made it to the country's Supreme Court, which last October overturned Bibi's conviction, citing inconsistencies in the testimony against her.

Crowds protest the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Bibi's conviction. (Bilawal Arbab/EPA-EFE)

Religious extremists shut down parts of Pakistan in protest that day, and threatened to carry out Bibi's death sentence themselves.

Prime Minister Imran Khan appealed to protesters to respect the rule of law, but he has not addressed calls to actually do away with the blasphemy laws.

"The blasphemy law is definitely a really, really big and important issue that the Pakistani state needs to address," said Suhail. "But so far, the pressure from the religious right has been so strong that nobody is even willing to touch this law."

The blasphemy laws started under the British rule of India and Pakistan in 1860. The government said its goal was to prevent religious violence between Hindus and Muslims.

"The language of the law was deliberate and [it outlawed] malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class by insulting their religious beliefs," said Suhail.

Since the 1980s, the blasphemy laws in Pakistan have been revised to make the punishment harsher. The consequences for those who have opposed the laws publicly have also been grave.

"Two very important people were murdered over this … that's why this case became so important," Malook said of Bibi's case.

Peter Bhatti of Brampton, Ont., left, with his brother, Shahbaz, during a visit to Parliament Hill. Shahbaz, who was a Christian federal minister in Pakistan, was killed after speaking out against the country's blasphemy laws. (David Bhatti)

In 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of the province of Punjab, denounced Bibi's death sentence. His bodyguard later shot him dead. Just three months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian federal minister in Pakistan at the time, was also killed after speaking out against the laws.

"Four people with shotguns came out from their car, and from both sides they start shooting him in the daylight," recalled his brother, Peter Bhatti, who lives in Brampton, Ont. "Then the word spread that this was the punishment of whoever do the blasphemy against our Prophet, that is the kind of punishment he will get."

Peter Bhatti had lobbied for Bibi's release since his brother's death. He says he breathed a sigh of relief when he learned of Bibi's arrival in Canada last week.

"We are thankful that at least she is free and my brother's sacrifice did not go in vain."