LAHORE, Pakistan (BP)–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 Jan. 4 in Islamabad.
The lives of Noreen (also identified as Asia Bibi by some media) and Salman Taseer were at risk since Taseer, his wife and daughter visited Noreen Nov. 22 in jail, 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 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 Direct News. “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.”
The fact Taseer was murdered in broad daylight shocked all those opposing the blasphemy laws, leading them to feel “there is little hope of these laws ever being repealed,” Johnson said.
Authorities have taken extra measures to protect Noreen’s life in prison after intelligence agencies had learned Islamists were plotting to kill her, Johnson added.
“The local Islamist forces believed that President [Asif Ali] Zardari would pardon Noreen on Taseer’s recommendation, and this was unacceptable to them,” Johnson told Compass. “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.”
News of the assassination of the governor would surely panic the Christian woman, Johnson said.
Noreen’s appeal of her conviction has not yet been taken up by the Lahore High Court, but the murder would definitely affect the course of justice, Johnson said. “The governor’s brutal murder has diminished our hopes for justice for Noreen,” he said.
Noreen’s family has been in hiding since Islamist parties started protests in favor of the blasphemy laws, Johnson told Compass.
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.”
Asher John is a writer for Compass Direct News (www.compassdirect.org). Based in Santa Ana, Calif., Compass provides reports on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission.