By Sheraz Khan
Special to ASSIST News Service
CAITHNESS, SCOTLAND, UK (ANS) -- The continuing incarceration of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian mother of five who was accused of blasphemy in 2009 does not appear to trouble the majority of Pakistan's Muslims who unfortunately view her death by hanging as a befitting punishment for the "crime" she denies doing.
The Pakistani government says it is up to the High Court to schedule her appeal hearing, but it appears that the court is delaying, by design, any proceedings in this regard and anti-Asia Bibi sentiment in the country remains as virulent as it was when the blasphemy accusations were first made against the poor farm hand.
The sad reality is that, four years down the road, she continues to languish in a prison away from her husband and children. Paradoxically, the people of Pakistan are the first to violently react to any incident they perceive as unjust toward Muslims, regardless of where such an incident takes place.
In September 2010, Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani Muslim neuroscientist, was sentenced in the Manhattan (New York) federal court to 86 years in prison for the attempted murder and assault of U.S. nationals and U.S. officers and employees in Afghanistan.
Islamists since then have held rallies in Pakistan in favor of Aafia Siddiqui and Fauzia Siddiqui, her sister, has advocated for her release in the Pakistan electronic media as well as in public rallies.
Dr. Aafia Siddiqui
In 2010, Pakistan requested the U.S. to extradite Aafia Siddiqui. It was suggested recently in the media that the extradition or hand over of Aafia to Pakistan in exchange for Dr. Shakil Afridi, was imminent prompting a U.S. foreign office spokesperson on Thursday, July 25, to dispel any such suggestion.
Dr. Afridi is a Pakistani physician who helped the CIA run a fake vaccine program in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in order to confirm Osama bin Laden's presence in the city by obtaining DNA samples. Details of the doctor's activities emerged during the Pakistani investigation of the deadly raid on Bin Laden's residence. He was arrested from Torkham border while trying to escape the country days after the raid. On May 23, 2012, Shakil Afridi was sentenced to 33 years imprisonment for treason, initially believed to be in connection with the Bin Laden raid but later revealed to be due to ties with a local Islamist warlord Mangal Bagh. Lawyers appealed against the verdict on June 1, 2012.
In November 2010. Pope Benedict XVI's call for clemency for Ms. Bibi provoked strident criticism from Pakistani politicians and Islamists across the world who saw the plea for mercy as an interference in Pakistan's internal affairs. Some even questioned the Pope's integrity by citing his silence over Ms. Siddiqui's release. Demanding the Pope to intervene on behalf of Dr. Siddiqui, per se, is absurd and to suggest that the former Pope should have done so since he called for Ms. Bibi's release is not only totally unjustifiable it is ignorance on a grand scale.
Salman Taseer, right, Governor of Pakistani Punjab Province, talks to reporters after meeting with Asia Bibi, left, at a prison in Sheikhupura near Lahore, Pakistan, in a Nov. 20, 2010 file photo. He was later assassinated
In 2011 Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani Christian minister of minorities and Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, a moderate Muslim, were assassinated for advocating Ms. Bibi's release and, as the world was coming to terms with these atrocities, the governor's assassin was festooned with garlands on the streets of Islamabad.
The predilection of Pakistan's government, and most of the Muslims in Pakistan (and across the Muslim world) for Ms. Aafia Siddiqui, contrasted with the torrent of hatred for Asia Bibi, deeply troubles me.
As Ms. Bibi's fate hangs in the balance, the focus of the international community aimed at securing her release, has shifted from Pakistan's outgoing President Asif Ali Zardari, whose five year term ends in September 2013, to Mr. Nawaz Sharif who made history by being elected for the third term as Prime Minister after the elections of May 2013.
Some analysts in Pakistan claim that the politics of Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Punjab, have matured after years of exile in Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen if the maturity attributed to the Sharif's is reflected in policies aimed at minorities and whether or not the "now wiser" Sharif's take measures to ensure minorities' inclusion in the social, political and cultural fabric of Pakistani society.
Supporters of All Pakistan Minorities Alliance chant during a rally calling for an end to the blasphemy laws and the release of Asia Bibi
Not many from amongst the Pakistani Christians, and other minorities, benefited from Shahbaz Sharif's free laptops distribution scheme he launched in the end of January 2012.
Mr. Shahbaz Sharif failed to show up in Gojra, a small town in the province of Punjab, which made international headlines after eight Christians were burnt alive over blasphemy rumors in 2009, in the wake of two recent incidents there.
On July 20, 2013, a disabled Christian man and his wife were arrested over sending a "blasphemous text" and, on July 13, a Gojra court gave life imprisonment and a fine of 200,000 Pakistani rupees (US$ 1,980) to Sajjad Masih, the Christian, who was accused of having committed blasphemy. Was Mr. Sharif waiting for the simmering tension to turn into communal violence or was he afraid that his presence in Gojra would antagonize Islamists?
Whatever his reasons for not visiting Gojra, his apparent apathetic gesture toward minorities suggests that he only sees fit to visit minorities during the election season and, as his party's presidential nominee, does not require the public votes of the minorities on July 30, so the likelihood of his visit to a minority area is highly unlikely.
As the Sharif's are drooling in anticipation of their nominee's presidential victory, Chrristian and minority leaders in Pakistan fear a resurgence of 2009 like violence in Gojra.