By Melanie Phillips
It is hard to think of a more deserving case for asylum than Asia Bibi.
A Christian in Pakistan, Asia Bibi has been freed after eight years in solitary confinement on death row for committing blasphemy, a crime of which she has now been acquitted by Pakistan’s supreme court.
The accusation against her was a travesty. As she picked berries with other Punjabi farmworkers in June 2009, a quarrel developed with two Muslim women after she was asked to fetch water and they said they wouldn’t drink from a vessel touched by a Christian. The women later alleged to a village mullah that Asia Bibi had insulted Mohammed, accusations which the supreme court said were “concoction incarnate”.
The acquittal prompted thousands of violent demonstrators to take to the streets calling for Asia Bibi to be hanged and threatening the supreme court judges with death. The leader of the Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan threatened that if she left the country there would be war.
She is now in hiding for her life in Pakistan after the new prime minister, Imran Khan, succumbed to the pressure and allowed a petition against the court decision as part of a deal to halt the protests. Several commentators have said the refusal to allow her to leave Pakistan effectively signed her death warrant.
It is, of course, astounding that the prospect of freedom for one woman, acquitted of a monstrously unjust claim of blasphemy, can have provoked this murderous hysteria. Apart from illustrating once again the sheer derangement of Islamic fanaticism, it illuminates two other things: the Islamists’ fear that Pakistan may be on the verge of becoming more open and loosening up Islamic law, and Imran Khan’s actual spinelessness in the face of an opportunity to do so.
A UK campaign group in touch with Asia Bibi’s family said the British government was working to help her but had stopped short of offering asylum.