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Christian woman accused for blasphemy is innocent; Government Minister said

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By Aftab Alexander Mughal Second first time a Christian woman, Aasia Noreen, is sentenced to death on November 8, 2010 under Pakistan’s much debated blasphemy laws, which were introduced by Pakistan’s third military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq as his attempt to Islamize the country. Nasreen Bibi from Kabirwala, Punjab province, was the first Christian women in the history of Pakistan who was sentenced by a lower court in insulting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in 1997. She was later acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Aasia Noreen, 45-years old and a resident of Ittawali village in Nankana district, Punjab province of Pakistan, was sentenced to death by District and Session Judge Nankana Judge Naveed Iqbal after the court found her guilty of making blasphemous statements against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).  She was charged under Section 295 C, Pakistan Panel Code (PPC), of blasphemy laws; it is a crime punishable by death to blaspheme the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH. The judge also imposed a fine of Rs 300,000 on her. Aasia said that she has not met any lawyer in jail and even on the day of her verdict she was not accompanied by any lawyer. Aasia, a farm worker, was married with Ashiq Masih, 51, and is mother of five, two boys and three girls; Sidra, 18, Esha, 12 (who is disabled), and Eshum 10. Ashiq`s family was one of the two Christian households in the village and have been living among around 7,000 Muslim families for so long. The village is about 75 kilometres (47 miles) west of the country’s cultural capital of Lahore. Last year in June, she was taken into custody by police.  According to Aasia’s account, she was working in the field, picking fruit in an orchard, on June 14, 2009, when she was fetching water while working in the fields from the same container which was also used by other Muslim women workers. A group of Muslim women labourers, including Aafia and Asma, objected, and used abusive language saying that her touch had made the water ‘unclean’. “I asked them if Christians were not human… why the discrimination? This annoyed them,” she said. Then a heated argument started between her and Aafia and Asma, the main witnesses in the case. Both women say that the allegation against Aasia were true. Police say the Muslim women reported the incident to Qari Muhammad Salim, an imam of a mosque, who later filed the police report. Aasia’s husband Ashiq says five days later, an angry mob led by Qari Muhammad Saalim, complainant in the case, burst upon her. “They dragged my mother out of the house and ripped her clothes,” one of her daughter said. They blamed her that she had blasphemed. Although she swore on the Bible that she had not committed blasphemy but did apologize if any word she may have said which may have hurt anyone’s feeling, nobody was ready to listen her. Ashiq claimed that the charged mob threatened the police to register an FIR under 295-C, Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) for using ‘abusive and insulting language against their Prophet Muhammad (PBUH),’ said Masih. The National Commission on the Status of Women has expressed its shock at the death sentence. Many Christian leaders as well as Muslim scholars and local human rights organisations have slammed the court’s decision but many Muslim residents of the village showed their satisfaction on the outcome of the case. However, Christian leaders said the proceedings of the case took place under intense pressure. In addition, the Federal Minister for Minorities’ Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, who is himself a Christian, expressed that the allegations are baseless and victimization of a weaker person. “My own investigation proves that it was a personal dispute and she did not commit blasphemy,” said the Minister. She has filed an appeal at the Lahore High Court on November 19, 2010 by her lawyer SK Shahid. “Obviously, there is to be an appeal against the sentence. But it is not just the legal process that raises questions,” senior journalist Ghazi Salahuddin writes in one of his columns. Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer, who visited Aasia on November 20, 2010 in jail, said she had steadfastly denied any instance of blasphemy. Before being handed over to police and put on trial for blasphemy, Aasia was suffered rape at the hands of her accusers. This is what she told the Governor of Punjab. Through the Governor she had appealed for clemency to the president. However, the presidential spokesperson said it would be premature to say if the president would accept any such plea. President Asif Ali Zardari has the power to overturn any punishment handed down by the courts. Even if Aasia is granted pardon, the controversial blasphemy laws in the country are to remain in place because it will not be easy to overturn these laws. She told the media that the case stemmed from personal disputes that led to a false accusation. She added that she cannot even think of committing blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). “I have small children. For God’s sake, please set me free.” Aasia pleaded. Pope Benedict XVI has called for her release and said Christians in Pakistan were “often victims of violence and discrimination.” A section of Urdu media has been publishing stories that the government is going to free Aasia and sending her to America and amending the blasphemy laws. Islamic religious parties show their strong resentment against these ‘moves.’ Aalmi Majlas-e-Tahuffuz-e-Khatm-e-Nabuat (AMTKN) has warned the government of launching a countrywide protest movement if the blasphemy convict is shown any clemency by the presidency and any move to amend the blasphemy. Many other religious parties show the same concerns on the issue. The Muslim religious leaders say the law is to protect the honour of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the death sentenced for this crime is justified. On the other hand, Aasia’s sentence sparked concern among the national and international human rights organisations about the continuous misused of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Anger at those laws grows so in many cities Christian organisations are having protest demonstrations against these laws and for the release of Aasia. (END)

Aftab Alexander Mughal is a Pakistani journalist and a human rights activist. He is the editor of Minorities Concern of Pakistan, an e-magazine, while he also heads the Asia desk of Spero News .

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