Saturday, October 6, 2018

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Pakistani Christian woman - Life or death for Asia Bibi, decisive hearing scheduled for 8 October

The Supreme Court of Pakistan examines the appeal of the lawyers of the Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. She prays in prison and asks for the Pope's closeness.
The decisive day for the life or death of Asia Bibi has come. On Monday, October 8, 2018, at 1:00 p.m. local time, the Supreme Court of Pakistan examines the appeal, which has reached the third and final level of judgment, filed by the lawyers of the Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy and in prison for almost a decade.  
 It will be a quick trial: according to Pakistan's criminal procedure, at this point everything will take place in a single hearing, where the judges will listen to the positions of the defense and the public prosecution and consider whether to confirm or overrule the death penalty sentence. The decision should be taken on the same day while for its publication we will have to wait two or three more days.  
"Within a week, then, Asia could be free. Let's hope and pray," notes Joseph Nadeem, guardian of the woman's family, and president of the Renaissance Education Foundation which from Lahore covers the legal costs of the trial and takes care of Asia’s family.  
As confirmed by the document issued by the Chancellery of the Supreme Court of Islamabad and reviewed by Vatican Insider, a special panel of judges, created for the occasion, are to listen to the arguments of the Muslim lawyer Saiful Malook, lawyer of Asia Bibi, and to decide on the fate of the woman.  
According to Nadeem, the hopes are well-founded. The college, composed of three senior magistrates - as anticipated by Vatican Insider last July - is chaired by the President of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Mian Saqib Nisar who, as a guarantee of impartiality and transparency, has taken upon himself the case of Asia Bibi, to avoid any risk of political and religious exploitation.  
  The declared aim - in an approach that has always been shared by the lawyers of the Christian woman - is, in fact, to handle the trial as a normal case of a legal order, stripping it of any symbolic or religious value. This will allow us to examine with serenity and rigor the evidence and the arguments presented by the lawyers and to issue a verdict that is only the result of the conviction gained in the trial, generated by factual elements.  
Both in the first and in the second degree, in fact, the judicial case that brought the Christian peasant girl of Punjab into prison was heavily conditioned by external elements that completely distorted the case.  
The trial before the court of Nakhana Shahib, who in November 2010 decreed the first death sentence, was evidently spoiled by false accusations, artfully built to punish the woman who had dared to rebel against a discrimination of which she had been victim, perpetrated by her agricultural work companions in the fields. Some women had accused her of having contaminated, as a Christian, the source of water from which everyone was drinking.  

Faced with Asia’s offended reaction - an unforgivable affront -the women had gone looking for the local imam’s support, who plotted the plan to charge Bibi for blasphemy: an easy shortcut used to get rid of opponents in private quarrels. The imam filed a complaint and testified in court about an event in which he was in no way involved in person, claiming that Asia had offended the name of the prophet Mohammed.  
It would have been easy, at that point, for the judges to expose the conspiracy, since the imam had never heard the words of Asia and his testimony was clearly false. But the court chose the most convenient way and, in order not to upset the local Muslim groups, preferred to plead Asia guilty.  
Asia's life changed from that day and, as innocent woman was sentenced to death under Article 295, Paragraph C of the Penal Code of Pakistan, or for the crime of blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad. Her case went public and Christians in Pakistan began a campaign in her defense, which culminated with Benedict XVI’s public appeal for her release.  
Meanwhile, an appeal was filed before the High Court of Lahore, the capital of Punjab, against that unjust sentence, but the case of Asia Bibi was already "hot" and a few months later, in that fateful 2011, was forever linked to two murders of high-ranking people, who had publicly sided in her favor: to lose their lives to the terrorist hand were first the Muslim Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, and then the Catholic Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for religious minorities.  
  At that point no magistrate wanted to take responsibility for judging Asia Bibi and a series of postponements, for various reasons, marked the trial in Lahore, while her detention time was significantly extended as the woman was transferred from Sheikhupura prison to the women's prison in Multan, to ensure greater security.  

We have to wait until October 2014 for a judge to agree to rule on the case of Asia but, while rumors of threats to the magistrates were spreading, the High Court confirmed the judgment of first instance, considering credible the testimonies presented against the woman. However, the sentence was suspended, pending the ruling of the third and final instance, the Supreme Court.  
"We are working hard and will bring convincing arguments. We trust in respect for the rule of law and in the impartiality of the judges. We are confident about the outcome of the trial," notes lawyer Saiful Malook who will attend – escorted - the hearing on October 8 in Islamabad.  
Meanwhile, just a few days ago, Joseph Nadeem and Asia's husband, Ashiq Masih, visited her in prison, finding her "strong in body and spirit", as they reported. "Asia is a woman of deep faith and lives this time immersed in prayer, with great spiritual serenity. She knows she is a beloved daughter of God and trusts in the Lord, who will be able to give her salvation," Nadeem observes. "At this decisive moment in her life, she asks for the prayer of all the Christians in the world and the special prayer of Pope Francis, who has already sent her a blessing and a Rosary, which Asia uses every day, animated by feelings of forgiveness towards her persecutors," she concludes.  
In the event the Supreme Court were to confirm her condemnation, Asia Bibi's last chance would be to ask for a measure of clemency from the President of Pakistan.

Asia Bibi’s family: Pakistan Supreme Court to decide her fate this month

Simon Caldwell

The first Catholic woman to be condemned to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws will discover her fate later this month, her family told Catholic News Service.
Asia Bibi, who has been held in solitary confinement since November 2010, when she was sentenced to hang for insulting Muhammad, the founder of Islam, will learn the outcome of her appeal to the Pakistan Supreme Court later in October, her husband, Ashiq Masih, told CNS Oct. 5.
If Bibi is released, he said, she and her family will immediately seek sanctuary in one of several countries that have offered them exile, because it is too dangerous for them to remain in Pakistan.
Ashiq, a builder from Sheikhupura, Pakistan, was in England with his and Bibi’s youngest daughter, Eisham Ashiq, as guests of Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic charity helping persecuted Christians.
They said when they visited Bibi in Multan Prison Oct. 1 that she was in good health, contrary to speculation that she was developing dementia.
During the interview at St Columba’s Church, Ashiq said Bibi was praying constantly and that she deeply believed she would win her freedom.
“She is psychologically, physically and spiritually strong,” said Ashiq. “Having a very strong faith, she is ready and willing to die for Christ. She will never convert to Islam.
“She also wanted to deliver a message to the international community that they must remember her in their prayers. These prayers will open the door of the prison, and she will be released very soon,” he said.
“She is spending her life praying with a very strong faith and is reading the Bible every day. She feels when she is praying, Jesus is encouraging and supporting her,” he continued, adding that she also received Communion in jail Oct. 1.
In June 2009 Bibi, who worked as a farmhand, was accused of blasphemy against Islam after Muslim women objected to her drinking from a common water supply because she is a Christian.
Eisham told CNS that, as a 9-year-old girl, she witnessed her mother being severely beaten by a Muslim mob in the aftermath of the accusation.
“I believe in God and I believe she will be released, but she can’t live in Pakistan once she has been released - simple as that,” she said.
Bibi was rescued by police, only to be sentenced to death for violating Section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which makes insulting Muhammad a capital offense.
No one has been executed under the law so far, but Christians who are falsely accused often are lynched or spend many years in prison.
Bibi’s final appeal will be heard by a special three-judge bench. The hearing represents her last chance at avoiding a death sentence for blasphemy. If the court upholds the execution order, the only option open to her lawyers will be a direct appeal for clemency to President Imran Khan.
Her case has divided Pakistan, with millions of Islamic militants reportedly willing to kill her to obtain a reward of 500,000 rupees offered by a Muslim cleric for her murder; some moderate Muslims have called for her release.
Among those who called for her release was the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, who was assassinated in January 2011 after he said he would fight for her release.
Two months later, Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was gunned down after he said he would seek the reform of the blasphemy laws to stop them being abused to persecute innocent Christians.
Now-retired Pope Benedict XVI is among those to have publicly called for Bibi’s release and, in February, Pope Francis received Ashiq and Eisham at the Vatican, while the Coliseum was bathed in red light to highlight the suffering of contemporary martyrs.
Ashiq said: “The pope encouraged us and said to us, ‘Don’t let your mind be disturbed’ and said ‘Pass on my encouragement to Asia Bibi and bless her as well.’ He said he is praying for her and that he believed she would be freed very soon.
“By meeting him, our faith was boosted,” he said. “We were already believing and have a strong faith, but listening to him really encouraged us.”
“Remember us in your prayers and support us as much as you can so that Asia Bibi can be released very soon,” Ashiq said. “When she is free, she will able to answer questions in person.”
“Remember us in your prayers and support us as much as you can so that Asia Bibi can be released very soon,” Ashiq said. “When she is free, she will able to answer questions in person.”

#Pakistan - INGOs on the march

In a worrying move, the crackdown on international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) is continuing under the new set-up. Action Aid and Plan International are just two of a total of 18 that are being sent packing. The deadline for all is 60 days. No reason for the decision has been forthcoming. In fact, the only message delivered has been that registration applications may occur after six months.
This is a pattern that has been ongoing here in Pakistan since 2011, when links between a fake polio programme and the US operation against Bin Laden first came to light. Though there had been rumours of western aid agencies using natural disasters, such as the 2005 earthquake, to spy on alleged ties between the security apparatus and militants. Yet things came to a head last year when the then government issued some 20 INGOs their marching orders for many of the same concerns. Though back then pressure from western governments allowed them to stay put while appeals were filed.
Naturally, the work of the non-governmental sector is crucial to supplementing moves towards good governance and the upholding of fundamental rights; particularly in healthcare and education. Pakistan owes much to UNICEF for containing the polio endemic here. Though it is local staff that continue to quite literally battle the frontlines to administer drops and vaccines in restive areas; and where militants actively resist the programme. That being said, many INGOs provide partial budget allocations to local rights groups on the ground. Their support to minority communities can be invaluable. And then there is the question of broad-based local employment.
That this announcement comes at a time when the FAFT delegation is heading this way demonstrates a lack of disregard for the provision stipulating that civil society organisations should not be impeded from carrying out their work. It also paints a picture of a government not in complete coordination with its different departments. After all, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi while in the US promised to advocate on the behalf of INGOs. Yet before he was able to do so, the Interior ministry, which is held by Imran Khan, sent notices of expulsion.And then there is the inescapable fact that Pakistan remains, to a large extent, a donor recipient nation. Thus it has to court those who are willing to open purse-strings.
What is perhaps needed in the long-term therefore is for all stakeholders to come together to restructure how the international development and NGO sector operate in Pakistan. To address prevailing concerns that promotions and pay-scales for the most part favour foreign workers; regardless of comparative experience. As well as not entirely unreasonable notions of how many projects are dependent on the presence of white men and women to get the go-ahead. But for this to happen the Centre needs to honest about its grievances.
Thus any revised partnership must prioritise the needs of the host nation’s citizenry. Pakistan is not yet ready to go it alone.