Sunday 19th May 2024,
HHR News
Hindu Human Rights Support for Asia Bibi’s Right Of Asylum

The recent acquittal of Asia Bibi after a decade on death row was initially a cause of celebration, indeed relief. Accused under the draconian and much abused Blasphemy Law of Pakistan, Asia Bibi or Aasiya Noreen, comes from the oppressed minority Christian community of that country, poor farm workers dependent on high class Muslim landlords for work.

She was sentenced to death by hanging in 2010, following an argument with village co-workers while harvesting berries, in which she was accused of insulting Islam. Noreen was the first woman in Pakistan to be sentenced to death for blasphemy, and would have been the first person in Pakistan to be executed for blasphemy under the current law. Asia was subsequently arrested and imprisoned.

In November 2010, a Sheikhupura judge sentenced her to death by hanging. The verdict was upheld by Lahore High Court and received worldwide attention. Various petitions for her release were created by organisations aiding persecuted Christians such as the British Pakistani Christian Association led by Wilson Chowdhry of London.

Minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti and Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer were both assassinated for advocating on her behalf and opposing the blasphemy laws. Maulana Yousaf Qureshi announced a bounty of 500,000 Pakistani rupees to anyone who would kill her. Radical Islamic parties reacted with fury as millions came out on the streets in a hate campaign led by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which belongs to the Barelvi school and wants sharia law implemented. On 2 November 2018 the government of Imran Khan signed an agreement with the TLP to prevent Asia from leaving Pakistan, thus capitulating to the extremists.

Wilson Chowdhry stated that “Placing Asia Bibi on the ECL is like signing her death warrant”. Labour MP Mike Gapes of stated “Given the clear inability of this new Pakistani government of Imran Khan to stop these mobs from intimidating and killing Christians in Pakistan, is it not time to reassess our relations with Pakistan? There are big concerns if religious minorities in Pakistan are not safe.”

As is the case with so many other minorities, Asia and her family were constantly pressured as the only Christians in the village to convert to Islam. The Blasphemy Law is a useful tool used to settle petty quarrels and has created a sense of extreme insecurity not just among minorities, but all communities in Pakistan.

Indeed the unnamed lawyer representing Asia has fled the country in fear for his life. Yes Asia Bibi has been refused asylum in Britain. Douglas Murray wrote in the Spectator on 17 November: “In the last week there has been some attention on the fact that various countries are looking into giving asylum to Bibi and her family – Britain among them.

But it appeared earlier this week that the UK would not be offering this genuine asylum seeker any asylum because there were concerns about – ahem – ‘community’ relations within the UK should she be allowed to move here.” Tom Tugendhat, the foreign affairs select committee chair, asked the Foreign Office permanent secretary, Sir Simon McDonald, whether the episode “does not raise the question that either staff should be withdrawn or security increased or otherwise UK policy is effectively dictated to by a mob?”

We must remember that this present state of the draconian law originated the former dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-haq. His military regime co-opted and strengthened the power of religious extremist clerics and parties such as the Jamaat-i-islami, using sharia courts, and amending a previously secular penal code.

Separate electorates for Hindus and Christians were established in 1985—a policy originally proposed by Islamist leader Abul A’la Maududi, founder of the Jamaat. Author Zafar Iqbal Kalanauri suggests that Zia’s interpretation of Islam may have “contributed to the rise of fundamentalism, obscurantism and retrogression” in Pakistan. However let us not forget the support which western countries gave to Zia. Former US Secretary of State George P. Shultz also laid a floral wreath at his grave and referred to him as a “martyr”. The Reagan administration saw Zia as a close American ally and sent him aid, finances and military support.

Image result for Thatcher with general ziaWhere the USA went, Britain followed. Zia’s violent seizure of power in 12977 had been welcomed by the Labour government of Callaghan. In October 1981, Prime Minister Thatcher paid a visit to Pakistan and gave a speech at a banquet hosted by General Zia at Aiwan-e-Sadr, the president’s official residence in Islamabad, where she praised his bravery in tackling the Soviet threat in Afghanistan.

Image result for Thatcher with general ziaWhile Britain and the US were supporting Zia throughout the decade, Islamisation oppressed Pakistan’s minorities and terrorist were nurtured in western-backed mujahedeen and the expansion of madrasas. Lashkar-e-Toiba, Harkat ul-Mujahideen, and Harkat al-Jehad al-Islami were just some of these. Zia repaid the support by encouraged Wahhabi clerics from Pakistan to go to Britain as preachers in the mosques patronised by the Pakistani diaspora.

Hence the situation we have today of Asia Bibi, imprisoned and threatened by draconian laws instituted by a British-backed military dictator, refused asylum by the very country which led to her being put in such a dire situation in the first place. That would not have happened if 40 years ago Britain had not averted its gaze to the negative fallout its diplomatic and military support for Zia was having in Pakistan.

Under the circumstances, the least Britain can do is grant this genuine case of religious persecution the right of asylum, and not let its human rights policy be skewed by threats from the very forces which are the antithesis of democracy.


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