Pictured: Ashiq Masih, the husband of Asia Bibi, together with their daughter Eisham Ashiq, campaigning for Asia's release in 2015. (Image source: HazteOir/Flickr)
The joy over the acquittal of Asia Bibi lasted barely 24 hours. The Christian mother of five from Pakistan was forced to spend eight years in prison, much of the time on death row, ostensibly for "blasphemy," before the Supreme Court cleared her of any offense.
"I can't believe what I am hearing, will I go out now? Will they let me out, really?", Asia Bibi said by phone after the historic sentence, according to AFP news agency.
Unfortunately, massive street protests by extremist Muslims immediately erupted to pressure the government to delay her release. The phone network in some areas was suspended for reasons of "security". Rioting caused schools in Islamabad, Punjab and Kashmir to close. Roads were blocked, paralyzing parts of Islamabad, Lahore and other cities. Christian schools warned parents to come and get their children for fear of violence. Churches were put on high alert. Protesters hold placards that read: "Hang Asia Bibi".
"There will be a war if they send Asia out of country," warned Khadim Hussain Rizvi, leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), an Islamist party that supports blasphemy laws.
Threats by vigilante mobs who called for her death and warned of national unrest evidently worked. Pakistan's government, after saying it would begin the process of preventing Asia Bibi from leaving the country, has now been accused of signing her "death warrant".
The government apparently succumbed to pressure and signed an agreement giving in to many of the demands of Tehreek-e-Labbaik. Pakistan's government also promised not to oppose a legal petition to reverse Asia Bibi's release, and to put her name on the "exit control list" (ELC), a no-fly list, to prevent her from leaving the country.
"Placing Asia Bibi on the ECL is like signing her death warrant", said Wilson Chowdhry of the British Pakistani Christian Association.
The agreement," tweeted analyst Mosharraf Zaidi, "was a "historic capitulation".
"It's almost certain that Bibi will not be able to live in the country after her acquittal", the famous Pakistani novelist Mohammed Hanif wrote in The New York Times.
"[B]arring her from leaving the country grants tacit permission to Tehreek-i-Labaik to hunt her down and murder her," wrote Robert Spencer, a human rights activist and author of 18 books that include New York Times bestsellers.
Asia Bibi's husband, Ashiq Masih, just applied for asylum in the United States, Canada and England. "I am requesting the Prime Minister of the UK help us and as far as possible grant us freedom", he said. "I am requesting the president of the United States, Donald Trump, to help us exit from Pakistan", he added. That is why the pact between the Islamists and the government is seen as a betrayal. "The agreement has sent a shiver down my spine", Masih said. "The current situation is very dangerous for us. We have no security and are hiding here and there, frequently changing our location".
Meanwhile, Asia Bibi's fate remains "uncertain".
Pakistan, country of 197 million people, armed with nuclear warheads, and an ally of the West with 97% of its population Muslim, has gone mad over the just acquittal of this Christian woman. Not only has the Pakistani judicial system tortured her for eight years by segregating her alone in a windowless cell. Now that Asia Bibi has been cleared, there are untold thousands ready to murder her.
The Islamists seem to think that what is at stake in the acquittal of Asia Bibi is a more open Pakistan, a defeat for sharia law and some hope for the few persecuted Christians there. Her ordeal shows clearly how the rule of law has broken down in Pakistan. According to Amnesty International:
"Pakistan's blasphemy laws are overbroad, vague and coercive. They have been used to target religious minorities, pursue personal vendettas, and carry out vigilante violence. On the basis of little or no evidence, the accused will struggle to establish their innocence while angry and violent mobs seek to intimidate the police, witnesses, prosecutors, lawyers and judges."
Recent attacks against Pakistani Christians included an attack on a church in Quetta in December 2017 that killed 9 people; a suicide attack targeting Christians celebrating Easter in March 2016 at a Lahore playground and which left 70 dead; two bomb blasts at churches in Lahore in March 2015 that killed 14; a twin suicide bomb attack at a Peshawar church in 2013 which left around 80 dead, and nearly 40 houses and a church burned by a mob in 2009, in the town of Gojra in Punjab, with eight people burned alive. Last March, a Pakistani court acquitted 20 people of being part of a mob that burned alive a Christian couple who had been falsely accused of "blasphemy". The Christian couple were tortured and their bodies incinerated in a brick kiln.
"The only punishment for a blasphemer is beheading", extremist Muslims chanted in the streets of Pakistan after Asia Bibi's acquittal. Her lawyer, Saif Mulook, already fled the country in fear of his life, but stated that the risks were worth the reward. "I think it's better to die as a brave and strong man than to die as a mouse and fearful person" he said.
The Muslim judges who acquitted Asia Bibi, Supreme Court President Mian Saqib Nasir and Judge Asif Khosa, have also received death threats. They were doubtless aware of the potential danger to their lives, but bravely went ahead and took the risk of becoming targets of the vigilante groups.
"They all three deserve to be killed," an Islamist leader, Muhammad Afzal Qadri, told a protest in Lahore. "Either their security should kill them, their driver kill them, or their cook kill them... Whoever, who has got any access to them, kill them before the evening".
Every day, Asia Bibi risks being murdered by these extremists. Prison officials revealed that even last month, before her acquittal, two inmates were arrested for planning to strangle her to death. Since 1990, 62 people have been killed in Pakistan after being accused of "blasphemy".
Salman Taseer, a brave Muslim who was governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, paid with his life just for expressing support for Asia; he was murdered by his own bodyguard, who said "he did this because Mr Taseer recently defended the proposed amendments to the blasphemy law." Malik Mumtaz Qadri, Taseer's murderer, who was later executed for the crime, became a hero, a "martyr", in Pakistan. A mosque was named after him, people came with their children to see him in jail and he released CDs of himself singing.
If Asia Bibi were to be murdered, it would be a gigantic defeat for any kind of judicial process and a gigantic victory against Christians -- comparable to their having been expelled Christians from their heartland in Iraq.
At this point, one can only fear for Asia Bibi, as well as other Christians in South Asia. In the West, there seem only to be yawns about her being hunted. Nearly a week of violent protests and threats against her life has not moved the European public to take to the streets to insist on her freedom. No resolution has come from the otherwise vocal UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. No pressure has been placed on Pakistan to assure her immediate and safe release. No conferences have been convened by EU officials in Brussels or Strasbourg.
European and Western governments should be doing do whatever they can to save her. Offer her honorary citizenship, as the city of Paris did in 2015. Shield her in a foreign embassy in Pakistan. Above all, provide asylum in a Western democracy.
During the last few years, Pakistan has been at the center of many Islamist attempts to curb freedom of speech in the West. Islamist hardliners rioted when the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten published cartoons of Mohammad. Geert Wilders last August cancelled a Mohammed cartoon contest after large-scale protests in Pakistan. After the massacre at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, violent riots took place in Pakistan. A Pakistani minister offered a $100,000 bounty to anyone who killed the man who made the film "Innocence of Muslims". The word "blasphemy", hanging over Asia Bibi's head, is the same used by extremist Muslims to target the West.
The judges, in their acquittal of Asia Bibi, said: "She appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare's King Lear, 'more sinned against than sinning'".
Will the West stand and help this persecuted Christian? She is us.
Giulio Meotti, Cultural Editor for Il Foglio, is an Italian journalist and author.