Pakistan

08.30.13

For Blasphemy, A Death Sentence

In 2009, Asia Bibi—a Pakistani Christian and mother of five—drew a cup of water from a Muslim's well and incurred the wrath of villagers who accused her of slandering Islam. Convicted under Pakistan's blasphemy law, which is often used to punish Muslims as well as religious minorities, Asia Bibi has languished in jail as she tries to overturn her death sentence. Now, in a new book, "Blasphemy," French journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet has helped Asia Bibi bring her story to the world, even as she remains trapped in a squalid jail cell. Here, Asia Bibi recounts the day her life changed forever.

I’ve almost filled my bowl when I hear what sounds like a rioting crowd. I step back from my bush, wondering what’s going on, and in the distance I see dozens of men and women striding along towards our field, waving their arms in the air. I shrug my shoulders at Josephine. She doesn’t seem to know what it’s all about either.

Then I catch the cruel eyes of Musarat. Her expression is self-righteous and full of scorn. I shiver as I suddenly realize that she hasn’t let it go at all. I can tell she’s out for revenge. The excited crowd are closer now; they are coming into the field and now they’re standing in front of me, threatening and shouting.

‘Filthy bitch! We’re taking you back to the village! You insulted our Prophet! You’ll pay for that with your life!’

They all start yelling: ‘Death! Death to the Christian!'

I look round for Josephine, but the angry crowd is pressing closer and closer around me. I’m half lying on the ground when two men grab me by the arms to drag me away. I call out in a desperate, feeble voice:

‘I haven’t done anything! Let me go, please! I haven’t done anything wrong!’

Just then someone hits me in the face. My nose really hurts and I’m bleeding. They drag me along, semi-conscious, like a stubborn donkey. I can only submit and pray that it will all stop soon. I look at the crowd, apparently jubilant that I’ve put up so little resistance. I stagger as the blows rain down on my legs, my back and the back of my head. I tell myself that when we get to the village perhaps my sufferings will be over. But when we arrive there it’s worse: there are even more people and the crowd turn more and more aggressive, calling all the louder for my death.

Asia Bibi
Pakistani christian woman Asia Bibi listens to Governor of Pakistani Punjab Province Salman Taseer at a prison in Sheikhupura near Lahore, Pakistan on November 20, 2010. (AP)

A woman I can’t see screams hysterically, ‘She insulted our Prophet, she should have her eyes torn out!’ while another yells: ‘Put a rope round her neck and drag her through the village like an animal!’

More and more people join the crowd as they push me towards the home of the village headman. I recognize the house—it’s the only one that has a garden with grass growing in it. They throw me to the ground. The village imam speaks to me: ‘I’ve been told you’ve insulted our Prophet. You know what happens to anyone who attacks the holy Prophet Muhammad. You can redeem yourself only by conversion or death.’

‘I haven’t done anything! Please! I beg you! I’ve done nothing wrong!’

The qari with his long, well-combed beard turns to Musarat and the three women who were there on the day of the falsa harvest.

‘Did she speak ill of Muslims and our holy Prophet Muhammad?’

‘Yes, she insulted them,’ replies Musarat, and the others join in: ‘It’s true, she insulted our religion.’

‘If you don’t want to die,’ says the young mullah, ‘you must convert to Islam. Are you willing to redeem yourself by becoming a good Muslim?’

They all start yelling: 'Death! Death to the Christian!'

Sobbing, I reply: ‘No, I don’t want to change my religion. But please believe me, I didn’t do what these women say, I didn’t insult your religion. Please have mercy on me.’

I put my hands together and plead with him. But he is unmoved.

‘You’re lying! Everyone says you committed this blasphemy and that’s proof enough. Christians must comply with the law of Pakistan, which forbids any derogatory remarks about the holy Prophet. Since you won’t convert and the Prophet cannot defend himself, we shall avenge him.’

He turns on his heel and the angry crowd falls on me. I’m beaten with sticks and spat at. I think I’m going to die. Then they ask me again:

‘Will you convert to a religion worthy of the name?’

‘No, please, I’m a Christian, but I beg you …’

And they go on beating me with the same fury as before.

I was barely conscious and could hardly feel the pain of my wounds by the time the police arrived. Two policemen threw me in their van, to cheers from the angry crowd, and a few minutes later I was in the police station in Nankana Sahib.

In the police chief’s office they sat me down on a bench. I asked for water and compresses for the wounds on my legs, which were streaming with blood. A young policeman threw me an old dishcloth and spat out at me: ‘Here, and don’t get it everywhere.’

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One of my arms really hurt and I thought it might be broken. Just then I saw the qari come in with Musarat and her gang. With me sitting there they told the police chief that I insulted the Prophet Muhammad. From outside the police station I could hear shouts: ‘Death to the Christian!’

After writing up the report the policeman turned and called to me in a nasty voice: ‘So what have you got to say for yourself?’

‘I’m innocent! It’s not true! I didn’t insult the Prophet!’

Immediately after I’d protested my innocence I was manhandled into the police van and driven away. During the journey I passed out from pain and only came back to myself as we were arriving at Sheikhupura prison, where I was thrown into a cell.

Since that day I haven’t left the prison.

 

Excerpted from Blasphemy: A Memoir: Sentenced To Death Over A Cup Of Water, by Asia Bibi. (Chicago Review Press, September 1.)