Jailed Pakistani Mother Living in Constant Fear, Husband Says

Murder of Punjab governor intensifies security concerns for woman sentenced to death.

LAHORE, Pakistan, January 19 (CDN) — A mother of five sentenced to death on “blasphemy” charges has lived in constant fear since the killing of Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, her husband told Compass as he came out of Sheikhupura District Jail after meeting with her last week.

Ashiq Masih said his wife, Asia Noreen (alternatively spelled Aaysa, and also called Asia Bibi), is “very afraid.” Her conviction triggered a violent chain of events in Pakistan, including the Jan. 4 murder of Taseer by his bodyguard after the governor voiced support for her.

“She knows the Muslims have announced a prize on her head and would go to any lengths to kill her,” a visibly nervous Masih told Compass. “The governor’s murder in broad daylight has put her in a state of paranoia.”

He added that threats by Islamist extremists have dampened Noreen’s hope of getting justice from the Lahore High Court, where her appeal against the conviction has been filed but yet to be taken up.

Wearing a dark cloak to hide his identity, Masih was visibly nervous after meeting with her on Jan. 11.

“She was asking me about the situation outside,” he said. “I tried to console her, but she knows it’s really bad. She’s also worried about the children.”

The mother of two children and stepmother to three others, Noreen asked him to appeal for more prayers for her, he said.

“Please tell everyone to pray for her,” he said.

Masih said prison authorities had improved Noreen’s security considerably after Taseer’s killing.

“She’s being kept in a separate cell with a warden deployed 24 hours for her security,” he said. “Only I am allowed to meet her, but even I am searched completely before they bring her out for the meeting. I just hope and pray she keeps safe inside the prison.”

Still, prison officials have reportedly said she will be transferred to another prison soon because of security concerns.

The female warden tasked with Noreen’s security the day Taseer was killed told Compass of the Christian woman’s reaction to the news.

“I was escorting her for her routine walk on the evening Governor Taseer was gunned down,” said the warden, who requested anonymity. “We were passing by a barrack when the news broke out on TV that the governor was dead … She stood there in shock for some time, and then she started screaming and crying.”

The warden added that she helped Noreen back to her cell, “as she could barely walk and kept weeping.”

“She cried all evening and also refused to have supper,” the warden said. “The governor’s killing shattered her. The governor’s visit had boosted her morale – she was very happy and every time I spoke to her, I could feel the joy in her heart. She shared with me how she had lost hope, and how God had sent Taseer to help her. A particular verse that she often repeats is from John 14:1, which says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.”

The warden said she was assigned Noreen’s security following reports that attempts would be made to kill her inside the jail. Since Taseer’s killing, she said, Noreen has grown suspicious of everyone around her.

“She’s only taken out of her cell for an hour, but even then she is fearful of her surroundings, even though all the other inmates are locked up before she’s taken out for exercise,” she said. “One can imagine how insecure she must be feeling after Taseer was killed by one of his own guards.”

Sheikhupura District Jail Superintendent Sheikh Khalid, who recently assumed charge, told Compass that Noreen was the most “high value” inmate of the prison and that he was not going to take any chances regarding her security.

“She is on the hit list of several extremist organizations,” he said, “and there are reports that she might be targeted inside the jail – moreover, she has a 30 million rupee [US$350,000] prize on her head. This is enough incentive for anyone to kill her.”

He said the prison had enhanced its security measures, and additional forces have been employed to guard the premises at night.

“No one except her husband can meet her,” Khalid said. “I have also directed her not to eat anything given to her by any person other than the wardens deployed for her security. We are trying our best to keep her safe, but life and death are in the hands of Allah.”

Noreen’s lawyer, S.K. Chaudhry, declined to discuss the future course of legal action because of the sensitive nature of the case.

Noreen has been condemned to death for insulting Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, a charge she denies. A week after her conviction, the governor of Punjab province visited her in jail. Taseer, a liberal Muslim, did not mince words as he assured Noreen of his support. He told her he believed that the charges against her were fabricated and that there had been a miscarriage of justice. He promised that he would recommend a presidential pardon for her.

During that visit, he called Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes “a black law” and called for their repeal – a demand that ultimately resulted in his brutal killing, as one of his own police bodyguards believed that Taseer had blasphemed by criticizing the law.

Masih, Noreen’s husband, said he was about to have lunch when he first heard the news of the killing of Taseer on TV.

“I had taken the first bite when the news flashed that Governor Taseer had been killed,” he said. “I was stunned, couldn’t swallow the food either … no words can explain that moment.”

He denied government reports that it was providing his family security, saying they were living in a safe-house arranged by “some friends” and surviving on money provided by Christian organizations. Taseer’s murder, he added, had shaken the little confidence the family had after the governor’s assurance of support to them.

“They killed the governor for supporting her,” he said. “He died for us, but it seems his sacrifice has gone in vain.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Murder of Governor in Pakistan Darkens ‘Blasphemy’ Case

Assassination called a blow to prospects of justice for Christian mother on death row.

LAHORE, Pakistan, January 5 (CDN) — The case of Asia Noreen, the first Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges, suffered a major setback when her most vocal supporter, the governor of Punjab Province, was gunned down by one of his police bodyguards yesterday (Jan. 4) in Islamabad.

The lives of Noreen and Gov. Salman Taseer were at risk since the day he, his wife and daughter visited her in the Sheikhupura District Jail on Nov. 22, after news of her conviction appeared in the media.

Taseer had openly criticized the blasphemy statutes and vowed to try to repeal the “black laws” in parliament. He also promised Noreen (also called Asia Bibi) that he would recommend a presidential pardon for her.

The governor’s assurance and his support for Noreen gave new hope to the impoverished mother of two children and step-mother to three others – and drew violent condemnation from Islamist forces, sparking countrywide protests.

“The governor’s visit gave us hope that all was not lost,” Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan, which has pursued Noreen’s case from the onset, told Compass. “We believed that God had sent the governor to help us … his words of support boosted Noreen’s morale, and she was actually quite optimistic about the outcome of her appeal in the high court.”

He said the murder of Taseer in broad daylight had shocked all those opposing the blasphemy laws, and that “there is little hope of these laws ever being repealed.”

Johnson confirmed that Noreen’s life was at high risk ever since the governor had highlighted her case.

“The local Islamist forces believed that President [Asif Ali] Zardari would pardon Noreen on Taseer’s recommendation, and this was unacceptable to them,” said Johnson, confirming that intelligence agencies had determined that Islamists had plotted to kill Noreen inside jail to make an example of her. “Noreen was earlier allowed two hours in the morning and two in the evening to go outside her cell to relax. After the intelligence information, the jail authorities restricted her movement, and now she is kept in the cell at all times. A security guard has also been deployed with her.”

He added that news of the assassination of the governor would surely panic the Christian woman.

Johnson said Noreen’s appeal of her conviction had yet to be taken up for hearing by the Lahore High Court, but that the murder would definitely affect the course of justice. “The governor’s brutal murder has diminished our hopes for justice for Noreen,” he said.

Her family, he said, has been in hiding since Islamist parties started protests in favor of the blasphemy laws.

“Even I am keeping a low profile these days,” Johnson said.

Taseer and Noreen were declared “Wajibul Qatil” (liable to be killed) by radical Islamic clerics. A cleric in Peshawar and a local politician in Multan offered a combined sum of 50 million rupees (US$579,300) for anyone who killed Taseer and Noreen.

Protests, shut-down strikes and general uproar pressured Pakistan’s federal government to announce that the blasphemy laws would not be repealed.

Taseer, however, continued to publicly vent his opposition – even using Twitter – to the blasphemy laws, which effectively mandate death for anyone convicted of insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Although courts typically overturn convictions, and no executions have been carried out, rights activists say the laws are used to settle rivalries and persecute religious minorities.

On Friday (Dec. 31), Taseer had tweeted “I was under huge pressure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”

The assassination is significant not simply because of the person targeted and the reason behind it, but because of the broader societal implications.

“[It points to] the presence of radical elements inside the Pakistani state apparatus,” said columnist Cyril Almeida.

He said that the fact that Taseer’s own bodyguard shot him is not just worrying because it indicates a failure of the vetting process but because it points to “the extent to which this poison has affected the Pakistani state. The investment in jihad has come home to roost.”

In the hours immediately following the killing, television anchors hosted several shows in which guests, while stopping short of openly supporting the murder of Taseer, did speak out in support of killing those deemed to have blasphemed. Some Pakistanis have reported that they received text messages on their mobile phones praising the assassination.

Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said the guard, Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, told police that he killed Taseer because of the governor’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Qadri had escorted the governor from Rawalpindi to Islamabad on Tuesday (Jan. 4).

A 26-year-old policeman from Barakhao on the outskirts of Islamabad, Qadri had reportedly transferred to the Elite Force after commando training in 2008. Thus far, he has not been identified as a member of any violent Muslim extremist groups but is considered devout in his faith.

Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.

Report from Compass Direct News

Pakistani Mother Condemned for ‘Blasphemy’ Stunned, Shattered

First woman sentenced to die for speaking ill of Muhammad says she never got to defend herself.

SHEIKHUPURA, Pakistan, November 17 (CDN) — Ashiq Masih, with his stooped posture, frail body and dull yellow eyes, stands in a small compartment in the Sheikhupura District Jail with his three daughters – Sidra, Eesha and Eeshum. The girls are weeping silently.

On the other side of a metal grille is Asia Noreen, the birth mother of two of the girls and the first woman in Pakistan to receive the death sentence on charges of blaspheming Islam’s prophet. Eeshum, 12-years-old and mentally disabled, whines like a baby for her mother, asking her when she will be back.

“I will be back,” she says to her daughters, as they feel their mother’s fingers through the gaps in the grille. “Don’t you worry, now.” But tears run down her face, too.

Arrested on June 19, 2009, Asia (alternatively spelled Aaysa) Noreen was accused of blaspheming Muhammad and defaming Islam. A judge under pressure from area Islamists convicted her under Pakistan’s widely condemned blasphemy statutes on Nov. 8.

“I don’t know why – when I walked into court that day, I just knew,” she said, tears returning to her eyes and her voice shaking. “And when the judge announced my death sentence, I broke down crying and screaming. In the entire year that I have spent in this jail, I have not been asked even once for my statement in court. Not by the lawyers and not by the judge. After this, I have lost hope in any kind of justice being given to me.”

In an interview with Compass at the jail northwest of Lahore, Punjab Province, Noreen said the triggering incident resulted from a “planned conspiracy” to “teach her a lesson,” as villagers in Ittanwali, near Nankana Sahib about 75 kilometers (47 miles) from Lahore, resented her and her family because of a few mishaps.

“What my village people have accused me of is a complete lie,” she said. “I had previously had a row over a trivial issue of water running out of my house onto the street, and a man called Tufail verbally abused me. On June 14, when I was out picking falsas [a type of berry] with about 30 women, they again asked me to convert to Islam.”

Noreen said the women of the village frequently asked her to renounce Christianity while they worked in the fields, and that she refused each time.

“This time, too, I said that I saw no reason why I should leave my own religion,” she said. “They then asked me about Jesus Christ, and I told them to go and ask the local mullah and not to bother me with those questions.”

Meantime, one of the women asked her for water, she said. After she had fetched it, the others told the woman not to drink water brought by an “untouchable” and “dirty woman,” Noreen said.

“I asked them if Christians were not human …why the discrimination?” she said. “This annoyed them, and they started verbally abusing me. We were soon engaged in a heated argument.”

She said that five days later, a mob led by Qari (one who has memorized the Quran) Muhammad Saalim burst upon her after some of the women told him about the incident in the fields. The mob pressured her to admit that she had blasphemed.

“They have been saying that I confessed to my crime, but the fact is that I said I was sorry for any word that I may have said during the argument that may have hurt their feelings,” she said.

Police arrived as they were beating her and took Noreen into custody, where they registered a case under Section 295-C of the blasphemy laws against her based on the complaint of the imam.

“They [police] registered a false complaint, because the complainant [Saalim] was never present at the scene,” she said.

Noreen said she has been heart-broken and shattered since the conviction. Her husband immediately tried to console her.

“Everything will be just fine, you just have to stay steadfast in your faith,” Masih told her. “All of us are here beside you. Everyone is praying for you.”

His words seemed to give her some hope, but she turned and asked Compass a question that no one has been able to answer for her.

“How can an innocent person be accused, have a case in court after a false FIR [First Information Report], and then be given the death sentence, without even once taking into consideration what he or she has to say?”

A pastor from Sharing Life Ministry who has been ministering to Noreen during her confinement and was present at all hearings told Compass that the judge had retired to his chambers three times before announcing the verdict.

“He was visibly tense,” the pastor said. “The presence of a mob outside the courtroom was instrumental in the delivery of this harsh verdict.”

Sidra, about 15 years old and one of three children born to Masih from a previous marriage, indicated she was traumatized by the attack on her step-mother.

“I saw that mob burst upon my mother, slap her and beat her up,” she said, her eyes both sad and fearful. “I saw them push her hard against a wall and tear her clothes. They were abusing her. I went to free her from their grip, and I heard them say to my mother, ‘Admit that you said derogatory things about prophet Muhammad, and we will leave you alone.’ Why would my mother ever do anything like that?”

Noreen broke in, “Why was an FIR filed against me by Qari Saalim? Who is he? He doesn’t even know what I said or did.”

Noreen’s lawyers filed an appeal against the Nankana sessions court’s verdict in the Lahore High Court on Friday (Nov. 12), and the court is likely to take up the case soon.

Sidra said Muslim villagers have bullied her and others in the family. She said a man who has two children of his own beat Eesha.

Noreen said police have not harmed her, unusual for Pakistani suspects in blasphemy cases.

“I was never even mentally harassed by the police,” she said, adding that fellow inmates were also treating her well.

Sohail Johnson of the Sharing Life Ministry, which has been following the case from the onset, said authorities may have been aware that the sensitive nature of the case would instantly bring it into public light.

Noreen said she has not lost faith in Jesus.

“He will rescue me from this fake case and I will return home – please ask everyone to pray for me,” she said as two prison guards arrived in the barrack to escort her back to her cell.

In spite of international attention, there has been little response from the government of Pakistan or civil society. No local organization has planned demonstrations to protest the verdict, which could set a dangerous precedent.

Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for minorities and a Christian, has written to the Punjab Province government requesting protection for Noreen and her family, both inside and outside jail. During the visit to Sheikhupura, however, Compass observed no special security measures for her family.

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslim Mob Targets Christian, Family in Murder Case

Villagers beat young man and his relatives, as well as burn their crops and press charges.

SHEIKHUPURA, Pakistan, October 11 (CDN) — A young Christian has been jailed for nearly eight months and his family was attacked after a Muslim friend framed him for murder, he said.

Yassir Masih, 18, has been locked up at Sheikhupura District Jail since his arrest in late February. In an interview at Narang Mandi police station at that time, Masih said that on Feb. 17 his Muslim friend Muhammad Mubashir came to his house late at night and asked him to accompany him on “an urgent piece of work.”

Residents of Pandori village in Sheikhupura district, Mubashir and Masih went to the home of Muhammad Imran, who was in love with the same girl as Mubashir; Masih said the two one-time friends often quarreled over her, with bitter enmity eventually developing between them.

“Being a friend, I went with him, reluctantly, and we soon arrived at the door of Muhammad Imran,” Masih said. “Muhammad Mubashir knocked on the door, and as soon as Muhammad Imran opened the door, Muhammad Mubashir opened fire with his pistol, killing Muhammad Imran on the spot.”

The gunfire awakened villagers, who gathered and began to search for the killer, Masih said. Frightened of the mob and not wanting to put his family in danger, Masih did not return home but fled with Mubashir. The two young men hid in a field of crops, where they decided to leave the village until passions cooled, he said. As Masih left the village, however, he was unaware that Mubashir had melted into the mob that was looking for the killer, he said.

“Later Muhammad Mubashir went to his house and slept in his warm bed that shivering cold winter night,” Masih said.

The next day villagers discovered Masih was missing and therefore accused him of killing Imran, he said.

They didn’t stop at that, said Khalid Gill, chief organizer for Punjab Province of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. Gill said that in order to deprive the wealthy Christian family of their profitable strawberry, wheat, corn and other crops, Mubashir’s father, Muhammad Gulfam, filed murder, arms possession and terrorism charges not only against Masih but also against his 50-year-old father Abid Masih, as well as brothers Khalid Masih, 30; Asif Masih, 23; Ashir Masih, 15; Faisal Masih, 13; and two others unnamed.

“Most of the Muslims in the area harbored jealousy against the prosperous Christian family,” Gill pointed out, explaining why Gulfam also pressed charges against members of Yassir Masih’s family.

Additionally, the angry villagers on Feb. 18 overran the property of Masih’s grandfather, Rehmat Masih, where four of the late patriarch’s sons lived; the mob beat women and children with clubs and looted appliances, clothes and other household items, Gill said.

“Nothing was left of use for the Christian family,” Gill said.

He added that the villagers ransacked Yassir Masih’s home and burned 20 acres of his fields on Feb. 18. The village comprises about 2,000 Muslim families and only 15 Christian homes, he said.

Officers from Narang Mandi police station arrested Yassir Masih later than month. He and his family members told officers that Mubashir shot Imran, but police listened only to the lies of the plaintiff, Masih said.

On Feb. 19 Yassir Masih’s mother, Shamshad Bibi, went to the Narang Mandi police station to file a complaint against the Muslim villagers for attacking and looting their house and burning their crops, Gill said. Police filed a case against the attackers but so far no one has been arrested, and “all the Muslim leaders who instigated the Muslim mob to attack are still at large,” Gill said.

At the same time, Narang Mandi police have arrested not only Yassir Masih but his brothers Ashir Masih and Asif Masih, 15 and 23 years old respectively, Gill said. While Yassir Masih has been incarcerated at Sheikhupura District Jail, Ashir Masih and Asif Masih were interrogated by Criminal Investigation Agency officers and have been kept at an undisclosed location since Feb. 18.

The accused Christian’s father, Abid Masih, as well as Khalid Masih, were still in hiding at press time. Police exonerated young Faisal Masih of all charges on Sept.1. Gill said that the 13-year-old boy had moved to an undisclosed location.

Report from Compass Direct News