For the first time in history, Pakistan has sentenced to death a Christian woman for blasphemy.
The Court of Sessions passed the death sentence on Asia Bibi on 7 November. Asia, who is 45 with five children, was accused under the blasphemy laws of passing derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed.
"Pakistan has crossed a line in passing the death sentence on a woman for blasphemy," says Andy Dipper, the CEO of human rights organisation Release International.
"Pakistan’s notorious 295C blasphemy laws are wide open to abuse. In effect Asia has been sentenced to death for talking about her Christian faith. In previous cases, the death sentence has not been carried out. But this could well mean a life sentence for Asia in appalling conditions on death row.
"Christians, as well as other minorities, can easily be accused of blasphemy, often as a vengeful way of settling scores.
"Release International has launched a petition calling for justice in Pakistan," adds Andy Dipper. "Please go online and add your name today. We’d also encourage you to write to the Pakistan High Commission in London and to contact your local MP on Asia’s behalf."
Asia, who is from Ittanwali in Punjab province, laboured in the fields for a Muslim landlord. She was arrested after a heated discussion about religion with her fellow farmworkers. Hers was one of only three Christian families in the village.
Some of the women workers had been putting her under pressure to renounce her Christian faith and accept Islam.
She responded by sharing with them about her faith in Christ. She spoke of how Jesus Christ had died on the cross for their sins and then asked them what Mohammed had done for them.
On hearing this response the Muslim women became very angry and began to beat her. Some men took Asia by force and locked her in a room. They used the PA system of a local mosque to broadcast plans to punish Asia by blackening her face and parading her through the village on a donkey.
According to Release partners, a mob formed and Asia was violently abused by Muslim villagers and clerics. Her children were also beaten.
However, some Christians informed the police and Asia was taken into protective custody. Pressure to charge her was brought to bear by Muslim leaders. Sentence was passed on 7 November.
Asia was also fined £728 – the equivalent of two-and-a half years’ salary for an, unskilled worker.
Release partners in Pakistan say the sentence is a crushing blow for Asia, who was hoping to be acquitted and return to her husband and children. They plan to visit Asia in prison as soon as possible.
Release is also concerned that the passing of the death sentence against Asia Bibi would set a harmful precedent. In a separate case, Martha Bibi (no relation) is on trial in Lahore for blasphemy. Charges were brought against her in 2007 after a dispute with builders in Kasur, who allegedly refused to return equipment belonging to Martha.
The Release petition on Pakistan can be downloaded or signed on: www.releaseinternational.org/pages/petition.php
On 2 November we carried the story of the Iranian woman Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was due to be hung the next day. More than 900,000 people signed a petition which was sent to the Itanian government, appealing for the sentence to be lifted and an inquiry. Sakineh hasn;t been executed yet, although the authorities haven't announced what they plan to do next. See: Outcry as Iranian mother faces execution tomorrow