Aasiya Noreen, also known as Asia Bibi
|Known for||Death sentence on charges of blasphemy|
Aasiya Noreen (Urdu: آسیہ نو رین, better known as Asia Bibi, Urdu: آسیہ بی بی, born c. 1971) is a Pakistani Christian woman who was convicted of blasphemy by a Pakistani court, receiving a sentence of death by hanging. Noreen was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad in June 2009 during an argument with a group of Muslim women with whom she had been harvesting berries, a charge she denies. She was subsequently arrested and imprisoned, and in November 2010, a Sheikhupura judge sentenced her death. If executed, Noreen would be the first woman in Pakistan to be lawfully killed for blasphemy.
The verdict, which would need to be upheld by a superior court, has received worldwide attention. Various petitions, including one that received 400,000 signatures, were organized to protest Noreen's imprisonment. She received less sympathy from her neighbors and Islamic religious leaders in the area, some of whom adamantly called for her to be executed. Christian minister Shahbaz Bhatti and Pakistani government politician Salmaan Taseer were both killed for advocating on her behalf and opposing the blasphemy laws.
Aasiya Noreen was born and raised in Ittan Wali, a small, rural village "surrounded by swaying fields of sugar cane, wheat and vegetables, nourished by a British-era canal, [with] villagers [who] have traditionally voted for the Pakistan People's Party". It is located in the Sheikhupura District of Punjab, Pakistan, 30 miles outside of Lahore. According to Irish journalist Declan Walsh, Christians in the district, and elsewhere in Pakistan, usually have lower class occupations such as being cleaners and sweepers. Noreen, who is a Roman Catholic and regularly attended the nearby Church of St. Teresa before her imprisonment, worked as a farmhand in Sheikhupura to support her family. She married Ashiq Masih, a brick laborer who had three children from a previous marriage, and had two more children with him.
Noreen and her family were the only Christians in the village. Fearing discrimination, they tried not to call attention to themselves; her home, she said, was not decorated with any religious artifacts such as crosses or pictures of the Virgin Mary and contained "only a small Bible hidden under the mattress". Before her incarceration, she had been repeatedly urged by her fellow workers to convert to Islam.
Arrest and imprisonment
In June 2009, Noreen was harvesting berries with a group of other farmhands in a field in Sheikhupura. She was asked at one point to fetch water from a nearby well; she complied but stopped to take a drink with an old metal cup she had found lying next to the well. A neighbor of Noreen, who had been involved in a running feud with Noreen's family about some property damage, saw her and angrily told her that it was forbidden for a Christian to drink the same water as a Muslim. Some of her Muslim fellow workers also became angry when they saw that she had drank from the well and the cup, which they claimed as their own, as they considered Christians to be "unclean". Apparently some arguments ensued. Noreen recounts that when the other workers made derogatory statements about her religion, she responded, "I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind?"
Later, some of the workers complained to a cleric that Noreen insulted the Prophet Muhammad. A mob came to her house, beating her and members of her family before she was rescued by the police. The police initiated an investigation about her remarks, resulting in her arrest under Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code. She subsequently was imprisoned for over a year before being formally charged. Noreen denied that she had committed blasphemy and expressed the belief that she had been accused by her neighbor to "settle an old score". However, because the country's sharia system considered a non-Muslim's testimony to carry half the weight of a Muslim's, she had difficulty defending herself in court. In November 2010, Muhammed Naveed Iqbal, a judge at the court of Sheikhupura, Punjab, sentenced her to death by hanging. Additionally, a fine of the equivalent of $1,100 was imposed. With the verdict, she became the first woman condemned to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges. Noreen's husband, Ashiq Masih, 51 years old at the time, announced that he planned to appeal the verdict, which has to be upheld by the Lahore High Court. A month later, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab who investigated the affair for the President Asif Ali Zardari, stated that Noreen would most likely be pardoned if the High Court did not suspend the sentence. Zardari later decided against granting a pardon after a number of "massive" demonstrations were held by Muslim fundamentalists protesting such a move.
Noreen was put in solitary confinement in an 8-by-10-foot (2.4 m × 3.0 m) cell without windows at the Lahore prison. Before his assassination, Taseer visited her at the jail several times with his wife, Aamna, and daughter, Shehrbano, though Pakistani court officials later ruled that she could be visited only by her husband and lawyer. Khalid Sheikh, the prison superintendent, said that while he wanted her to be treated "like any other prisoner", she had to be kept away from other inmates for her own well-being, as other individuals accused of blasphemy had been killed while in prison. Out of concern that she could be poisoned, prison officials began giving Noreen raw materials to cook her own food. In April 2011, it was reported that her health was in decline due to the poor living conditions at the jail. In 2012, it was further reported that she had been repeatedly subjected to physical abuse from prison guards. Noreen commented, "I was a good wife, a good mother, and a good Christian. Now it seems I'm only good to hang."
Local reactions to sentencing
Noreen's conviction led to divided opinions on the blasphemy laws and drew strong reactions from the public. Pakistani Human Rights Watch researcher Ali Dayan Hasan said, "The law creates this legal infrastructure which is then used in various informal ways to intimidate, coerce, harass and persecute." He further described the law as "discriminatory and abusive". Governor Salmaan Taseer and Pakistan's Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti both publicly supported Noreen, with the latter saying, "I will go to every knock for justice on her behalf and I will take all steps for her protection." She also received support from Pakistani political scientist Rasul Baksh Rais and local priest Samson Dilawar. The imprisonment of Noreen left Christians and other minorities in Pakistan feeling vulnerable, and liberal Muslims were also unnerved by her sentencing.
The general population was less sympathetic towards Noreen. Several signs were erected in Sheikhupura and other rural areas declaring support for the blasphemy laws, including one that called for Noreen to be beheaded. Mohammad Saleem, a member of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan Party, organized a demonstration in Rawalpindi and led a small crowd chanting, "Hang her, hang her." In December 2010, a month after Noreen's conviction, a Muslim cleric announced a 500,000 Pakistani rupee award (the equivalent of $10,000) to anyone who would kill her. One survey reported that around 10 million Pakistanis had said that they would be willing to personally kill her out of either religious conviction or for the reward. The village's mosque was reportedly indifferent towards Noreen's plight, and its imam, Qari Mohammed Salim, stated that he had wept for joy on learning that she had been sentenced to death. Salim also threatened that some people would "take the law into their own hands" should she be pardoned or released. However, journalist Julie McCarthy suggested that the country's "more peaceful majority views" had been overshadowed by the more vocal fundamentalists.
Noreen's family has received threats and has gone into hiding. Ashiq, her husband, stated that he was afraid to let their children go outside. He also expressed concern about how Noreen would be kept safe should she be released, saying, "No one will let her live. The mullahs are saying they will kill her when she comes out." Her family was offered asylum by France, but they declined to leave the country while she remained in prison. Italy, France, and Spain all offered to grant her and her family asylum in the event of her release.
Assassinations for comments on Noreen
On January 4, 2011, at Kohsar Market of Islamabad, the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated by Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, a 26-year-old member of his security team, because of his defence of Noreen and opposition to the blasphemy law. Taseer was outspoken in his criticism of the law and the verdict in Noreen's case. The next day, thousands turned up for governor his funeral in Lahore in spite of warnings by the Taliban and some clerics. Thousands of Sunni Muslims also rallied in support of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan after the murder, and 500 Barelvi clerics prohibited their followers from sending condolences to the family of Taseer. A portion of the Pakistani population also seemed to praise Qadri as a hero, resulting in concerns that the public was becoming tolerant of extremists.
Prison officials said that Noreen "wept inconsolably" on learning of Taseer's assassination while repeatedly saying, "That man came here and he sacrificed his life for me." Father Andrew Nisari, a senior Catholic Spokesperson in Lahore, described the situation as "utter chaos". Seven months later, Taseer's 28-year-old son, Shahbaz, was kidnapped.
Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti said that he was first threatened with death in June 2010 when he was told that he would be beheaded if he attempted to change the blasphemy laws. In response, he told reporters that he was "committed to the principle of justice for the people of Pakistan" and willing to die fighting for Noreen's release. On March 2, 2011, Bhatti was shot dead by gunmen who ambushed his car near his residence in Islamabad, presumably because of his position on the blasphemy laws. He had been the only Christian member of Pakistan's cabinet.
Noreen's death sentence drew international outrage and strong condemnation from human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch who saw the blasphemy laws as a form of religious persecution and called for them to be abolished. Pope Benedict XVI publicly called for clemency for Noreen. In his statement, he described his "spiritual closeness" with Noreen and urged that the "human dignity and fundamental rights of everyone in similar situations" be respected.
Her case also achieved extensive media coverage, and American journalist John L. Allen, Jr. writes that she is "almost certainly the most famous illiterate Punjabi farm worker and mother of five on the planet". According to Allen, she has become a celebrity among Christian activists, an unusual instance when cases of discrimination against Christian minorities typically receive little attention in the press. A number of campaigns have been organized to protest her imprisonment through online petitions, Twitter trends, and concerts. Ooberfuse, a Christian pop band based in the United Kingdom, released a song titled "Free Asia Bibi" with a music video that included "a disturbing visual portrayal of the squalid prison conditions where Bibi is being held". She has also been the subject of books and documentaries. One petition received over 400,000 signatures from individuals from over 100 countries.
French journalist Anne Isabelle Tollet assisted Noreen in writing a memoir titled Blasphemy: A Memoir: Sentenced to Death over a Cup of Water. Noreen is illiterate, and Tollet was unable to visit her directly due to prison restrictions, but Tollet was able to conduct interviews through Noreen's husband, who passed questions and answers between them. Tollet also met other members of Noreen's family, including her children and sister, and had known Shahbaz Bhatti before his assassination. In her autobiography, Noreen implores readers, "Now that you know me, tell those around you what is happening. Let them know about it. I believe this is my only chance of not dying in the pit of this dungeon. I need you! Save me!" The book was published in English in 2013.
- Christianity in Pakistan
- Christianity in Punjab, Pakistan
- Freedom of speech versus blasphemy
- Human rights in Pakistan
- Qamar David
- Rimsha Masih blasphemy case
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- Your signature to save Asia Bibi and Pakistan, AsiaNews.it.
- Online petition drive launched by The Voice of the Martyrs to call for Asia's release, www.CallForMercy.com
- Ooberfuse sings: Free Asia Bibi at kathtube