A Pakistani supporter of Islamist group Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat holds an image of Catholic woman Asia Bibi during a protest in Islamabad in November 2018 following the Supreme Court's decision to acquit her of blasphemy. (Photo: AFP)
Asia Bibi, the Catholic woman acquitted of blasphemy after spending eight years on death row in Pakistan, has described her ordeal as “a prisoner of fanaticism” in her newly published autobiography.
The mother of five was sentenced to death on insubstantial evidence in 2010 after being accused of blasphemy in a dispute over a cup of water with a Muslim co-worker on a farm.
Punjab’s governor Salman Taseer and Christian MP Clement Shahbaz Bhatti were murdered for publicly supporting her and criticizing Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.
Bibi, 47, was dramatically acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2018 and now lives in exile in Canada at an undisclosed location after moving there last May.
Her autobiography, Enfin libre! (Free at Last), has been written in French by journalist Isabelle-Anne Tollet, who campaigned for Bibi’s freedom and is the only reporter to have met her during her stay in Canada. An English version is due out in September.
“You already know my story through the media. But you are far from understanding my daily life in prison or my new life. I became a prisoner of fanaticism. Tears were the only companions in the cell,” Bibi says in the book.
She describes being chained and wearing an iron collar around her neck that prison guards could tighten with a huge nut.
“Deep within me, a dull fear takes me towards the depths of darkness. A lacerating fear that will never leave me,” she says. “I am startled by the cry of a woman. ‘To death!’ The other women join in. ‘Hanged!’ 'Hanged!’”
In Muslim-majority Pakistan, an unsubstantiated allegation of insulting Islam can lead to death at the hands of mobs.
Bibi’s acquittal resulted in violent protests led by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi that paralyzed Pakistan.
Bibi argues in her book that the Christian minority still faces persecution in Pakistan. “Even with my freedom, the climate does not seem to have changed and Christians can expect all kinds of reprisals,” she says.
While she is grateful to Canada for giving her security and a fresh start, she regrets that she will probably never set foot in her homeland again.
“In this unknown country, I am ready for a new departure, perhaps for a new life. But at what price?” Bibi asks.
“My heart broke when I had to leave without saying goodbye to my father or other members of the family. Pakistan is my country. I love my country but I am in exile forever.”
She refers to Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws as a “Damocles sword” hanging over the head of religious minorities.
From 1987 to 2017, at least 1,500 people were charged with blasphemy in Pakistan, while at least 75 people accused of blasphemy were murdered, according to the Center for Social Justice.