by Zehra Abid
Asma and Mafia, sisters who each go by one name, as some do in parts of Pakistan, were witnesses to the alleged incident. They reported the altercation to the village cleric, Qari Saalam, who filed a police report against Aasia on charges of blasphemy five days later. State vs. Aasia Bibi was heard in a lower court in the nearby city of Nankana Sahib, and in November 2010, Aasia was found guilty and sentenced to death. Now, the former daily wage laborer and mother of two remains in solitary confinement on death row in the women’s jail in the southern Punjab city of Multan.
Her case has drawn widespread criticism, and calls for her release have come from as far away as the Vatican; international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch havechampioned her cause. Aasia’s case is just one of hundreds in Pakistan based on the infamous blasphemy laws, which carry with them a virtually mandatory death sentence or life imprisonment and, activists say, are often used as cover to settle personal disputes, especially with members of religious minority groups.
And now transcripts of her trial, previously sealed and recently obtained by Al Jazeera America, raise further questions about how Aasia’s case was handled by the court. There are numerous and serious inconsistencies in the witness accounts provided by the prosecution; the cleric who brought the case against Aasia wasn’t even present during the alleged incident; and her legal counsel appears to have been incompetent.
The Lahore High Court upheld Aasia’s death sentence, a move that human rights lawyer Asad Jamal believes was gravely in error. He thinks that the high court should have dismissed her case instead. “I think there was an element of social prejudice there because the woman is a low-caste, Christian woman. The judge should have considered the social discrimination over religion and caste.”
But in Ittan Wali, there seems to be little sympathy for her plight. “She insulted Islam and the Holy Quran,” says Naseem Akhtar, a college student who heard about the incident from others. “The punishment for blasphemy is the death penalty.” Sitting on a charpoy in the courtyard of her red-brick house, Akhtar discusses the case with complete certainty about where the blame lies. “There had never been any problems between Christians and Muslims living here. It was Aasia who created them...”