PAKISTAN: Asia Bibi living in constant fear in prison

Asia Bibi Asia Bibi, the Christian mother of five sentenced to death under the blasphemy law, is living in constant fear since the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer.

Governor Taseer was murdered on 4 January 2011 by his bodyguard, after visiting Asia Bibi in prison and speaking out against the blasphemy law. Her husband Ashiq Masih visited her in Sheikhupura District Jail on 11 January 2011 and described her as “very afraid… She knows the Muslims have announced a prize on her head and would go to any lengths to kill her.”

Wearing a dark cloak to hide his identity, Ashiq Masih said that threats by Islamist extremists have dampened his wife’s hope of getting justice from the Lahore High Court, where her appeal against the conviction has been filed but not yet taken up. He explained how the prison authorities have improved her security after Taseer’s killing: “She’s being kept in a separate cell with a warden deployed 24 hours for her security. Only I am allowed to meet her, but even I am searched completely before they bring her out for the meeting. I just hope and pray she keeps safe inside the prison.”

However, an official report released on 11 January 2011 by the provincial intelligence agency describes the increased threat to Asia’s life since the assassination of Salmaan Taseer: “Just one lady warden has been assigned to her inside the jail and five police constables deputed to secure the jail’s perimeter, along with two motorcycle squads assigned to patrol the jail periphery. The guards are not vigilant and most of the time they are absent, especially the motorcycle riders”.

Ashiq Masih said that his wife asked him about the situation outside and appealed for more prayers. “I tried to console her,” he said, “but she knows it’s really bad. She’s also worried about the children.” Asia is mother to two children and stepmother to three others. The family is living in a safe-house arranged by friends and surviving on money provided by Christian organisations.

The warden tasked with Asia’s security on the day Taseer was killed described her reaction to hearing the news. She was escorting Asia for her routine walk when they passed a TV showing the news. “She stood there in shock for some time, and then she started screaming and crying,” said the warden. She helped Asia back to her cell, as she could barely walk and kept weeping. “She cried all evening and also refused to have supper. The governor’s killing shattered her. His visit had boosted her morale – she was very happy… She shared with me how she had lost hope, and how God had sent Taseer to help her.”

Asia Bibi has an Urdu Bible in prison, given to her by supporters. She is not a fluent reader, according to local pastor Obed Robert, who visits her and supports her family, but she has taken particular comfort from John 14v1, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.”

Since Taseer’s killing, Asia has grown suspicious of everyone around her. She is only taken out of her cell for an hour’s exercise a day, and the other inmates are locked up during that time. Sheikhupura District Jail Superintendent Sheikh Khalid said that he was not going to take any chances regarding her security. “No one except her husband can meet her,” he said. “I have also directed her not to eat anything given to her by any person other than the wardens deployed for her security… She is on the hit list of several extremist organisations, and there are reports that she might be targeted inside the jail – moreover, she has a 30 million rupee [€260,000] prize on her head.”

IMMINENT TRANSFER PUBLICLY ANNOUNCED

Sheikh Khalid also said “I have received directives from the Punjab Home Department to shift Asia from Sheikhupura district jail to an all-women jail in Multan, as her life is in danger in Sheikhupura jail.”

The transfer is expected to take place at night under heavy security within the next few days, and the Punjab Home Department has directed the Inspector General of Police to provide heavy security to ensure a safe transfer. It is widely believed that the proposal to transfer Asia should not have been made public in Pakistan, as the extremists are determined to find an opportunity to kill her. (Compass Direct News, Assist News Service)