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Opinion: 'Ireland should, as a matter of urgency, offer asylum to Asia Bibi'

If the referendum was not just about a pointless change, the government should demonstrate its commitment to freedom, equality and modernity by offering Asia Bibi and her family asylum and safety here, writes Paddy Manning.

Paddy Manning

LAST MONTH, BLASPHEMY was removed from the Irish constitution, and now the government have been presented with an opportunity to demonstrate that this was not a mere cosmetic exercise.

Simon Coveney, Minister for Foreign Affairs, should, as a matter of urgency, offer asylum to Asia Bibi, a Pakistani mother of five and farm labourer, whose life is in imminent danger because she has been accused of blasphemy.

Ms Bibi spent the last nine years in jail and on death row because of a blasphemy charge, before having her conviction overturned by Pakistan’s Supreme Court on 31 October. 

However, her nightmare didn’t end when the Supreme Court vacated that conviction claiming there were material contradictions in the inconsistent witness statements. Huge protests organised by Islamic extremists led to mayhem and violence across the country. Schools were shut and traffic routes blocked as protesters demanded Ms Bibi be executed along with the judges who had ordered her release. They also called for army officers to rise up in mutiny against the government.

Imram Khan’s government have quickly moved to appease protesters, and have slapped a no-fly list ban on Asia Bibi as part of a political deal with Tehreek-e-Labbaik, a fast-growing party which brought hordes of men onto the streets demanding that Ms Bibi be hanged.

Having been saved from execution by the Supreme Court, Asia Bibi is now in mortal danger, as she faces being murdered by the mob, a paid assassin or, as is the case of many accused of blasphemy in Pakistan, by those guarding her.

Neither can there be any guarantee that her husband and children can survive the tsunami of hate directed at this unfortunate family when both the governor of Punjab and Pakistan’s minorities minister, the only Christian in the cabinet, were murdered for opposing her conviction and the blasphemy law.

The nightmare for Ms Bibi began in a field where she was harvesting falsa berries in June 2009.

An argument broke out between her and her co-workers over a drinking cup.

The Muslim workers regarded Bibi, a Catholic, as unclean, in a relic of the Hindu caste system that still exists despite the more than century old conversion and domination of the area by Islam. Asia Bibi and her husband Ashiq Masih, are the only Christians in their village of Ittan Wali and had been repeatedly pressured into converting to Islam.

An allegation of blasphemy was made against Ms Bibi. The police intervened to save Asia from a mob, then began their investigation into her alleged blasphemy. After a year in solitary confinement in a windowless cell, Asia Bibi was sentenced to be hanged in November 2010.

Although no one has been executed in Pakistan under the 1992 mandatory death sentence for blasphemy, at least 65 people have been murdered in blasphemy-related instances and 20 of these murders were carried out by their prison guards.

In April 2017, after returning from a 13-year exile prompted by blasphemy accusations, 50-year-old Fazal Abbas was shot dead in Punjab by three women. A young university student accused of blasphemy, Mohammed Mashal Khan was lynched by a mob in the north-eastern city of Mardan.

That’s why placing Asia Bibi on a no-fly list is widely perceived as an extra-judicial death sentence.

In contrast with our removal of a blasphemy provision under which not a single case or conviction had occurred in the lifetime of the constitution, Imram Khan, the cricket playboy turned politician, is determined to revive Pakistan’s attempt to enforce global blasphemy law through the UN.

Tehreek-e-Taliban have no parliamentary seats.Their powerbase is on the streets and killing Asia Bibi has been their cause.

The failed insurgents have made Mumtaz Qadri, the executed assassin of Asia’s friend and defender, Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, their martyr hero.

Qadri’s grave has become a popular shrine. One of the group’s Imams, Peshwar-based Maulana Yousef Qureshi has put a bounty of 500,000 rupees (€3,300) on Asia Bibi’s head. Her lawyer, having braved years of threats and harassment, has fled to Europe.

It is against that background that the Irish government has an urgent opportunity to offer Asia Bibi sanctuary.

To do so would heighten the pressure on Imram Khan not to sacrifice her life for his own political opportunity and give his government another option at this crucial time.

It will signal that Ireland stands for the persecuted and the unjustly imprisoned.

Such an action would hearten and strengthen the majority of Pakistani’s to stand up to the brutal, vocal, minority of hard-line bullies that discredit the country. A protest at the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan on Tuesday was joined by a Pakistani couple who came across the group supporting Asia Bibi by chance. They took photos to show friends and family at home that there is help and support for tolerance across the world.

Ireland can broadcast that message clearly with an offer of asylum.

It fell to former Foreign Affairs Minister, now Justice Minister, Charlie Flanagan, to make one of the few coherent arguments for the blasphemy referendum when he said that the very presence of the unused provision is used by hardliners elsewhere to justify brutal laws.

If that argument and the referendum itself are not just to be pointless change, the government should seize the very likely cost-free way of demonstrating its commitment to freedom, equality and modernity by offering Asia Bibi and her family asylum and safety here. Do the right thing, Mr Coveney, please.  

Paddy Manning is a blogger, podcaster and political activist who is campaigning for asylum for Asia Bibi.   

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