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Asia Bibi was convicted and sentenced to death for what started as a simple argument with farmers over water, then turned into a nationwide struggle over religion. Acquittal and a new life abroad have given her freedom back – but she says her family has paid a price for her ordeal

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Asia Bibi, a Christian from Pakistan, stands alongside her husband, Ashiq Masih, near their home on the Canadian Prairies.Leah Hennel/The Globe and Mail

For so many years before she fled Pakistan, Asia Bibi and her husband, Ashiq Masih, were content working on their farm, where they grew wheat, potatoes, cauliflower, tomatoes and all sorts of other crops.

After spending nearly a decade in custody, facing the death penalty for heavily disputed claims that she insulted Prophet Muhammad, she was eventually released and escaped to Canada’s Prairies, where she hopes to one day practise the craft of farming she left behind.

“This was what we did in Pakistan, and we enjoyed it,” Ms. Bibi says, speaking in Urdu alongside her husband and two youngest daughters in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

But there is a long and difficult road ahead for Ms. Bibi, who still lives in fear of assassination. After all, her court case led to the killings of two prominent Pakistani politicians, and sparked riots and mass protests over the span of a decade. Ms. Bibi and her family have avoided getting close to anyone since moving to Canada in 2019 and toil in challenging English classes in the hopes of one day leading a normal life in their adopted country.

“I haven’t been able to make any friends, and I don’t really want to yet,” Ms. Bibi says. “When you become friends with someone, then lots of things about your life come out, and I’m not ready to share that with people.”

Ms. Bibi might not be a household name in Canada, but her case under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law threatened to completely unravel the South Asian country, with millions of fundamental Islamists protesting and rioting any time the courts moved toward granting the minority-Christian woman freedom. Many of them called for her death.

She first received international attention in 2009, when she was charged following a dispute with two fellow farm workers, who refused to drink from the same water container as Ms. Bibi. The farm workers told authorities she insulted Islam, a crime punishable by death in Pakistan. Despite denying the accusation, she was charged with blasphemy.

Ms. Bibi was eventually convicted and spent years on death row.

Now, after fleeing Pakistan for a cold, foreign country thousands of kilometres away, Ms. Bibi says she doesn’t hold a grudge against her accusers.

It’s her children, she says, who have faced the biggest losses throughout this ordeal, both in terms of trauma and missed opportunities. “My kids’ future has been destroyed,” Ms. Bibi says, looking at her two daughters, Esham and Esha, now in their 20s.

Their lives were turned upside-down when Ms. Bibi’s case left her languishing in jail.

The family experienced constant harassment, and her husband couldn’t work, which meant they were unable to pay for their daughters to attend school.

Now that they’re in Canada, Ms. Bibi hopes Esham, the older of the two, will complete high school. But the young woman – who has had a few customer service jobs that never stuck – isn’t interested in starting over.

Her younger sister, meanwhile, lives with a disability that leaves her unable to work.

Ms. Bibi says she always considered her own lack of education to be her biggest shortcoming. And it pains her that the years she spent in jail robbed her children of their chance at becoming educated, too.

Open this photo in gallery:
Open this photo in gallery:

Scenes from Pakistan in 2018: At top, Christians in Multan pray for Ms. Bibi on Oct. 31, the day the nation's top court acquitted her in the blasphemy case, and at bottom, a supporter of the hardline Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat party holds a picture of Ms. Bibi at a Nov. 2 protest in Islamabad.Photos: Irum Asim/AP; AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

The path to freedom was not a simple one for Ms. Bibi, even after she was eventually acquitted.

It began early during her stint in prison, when Aman Ullah, a Pakistani human-rights activist who regularly works with people accused of blasphemy, managed to contact her. Mr. Ullah, who now lives in a Commonwealth country outside of Pakistan for his own safety, spent nearly a decade communicating with Ms. Bibi, keeping her informed of how her case was going and how the public was reacting.

In the wake of her conviction in 2010, many Pakistani politicians called for reform to the country’s blasphemy laws, which permit death sentences.

Ms. Bibi’s case shot into the international spotlight in 2011, when Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, was gunned down by his own bodyguard in an upscale Islamabad market. Mr. Taseer’s brazen assassination came after he criticized the blasphemy laws in support of Ms. Bibi’s case. That same year, Shahbaz Bhatti – the country’s minister of minorities – was assassinated after he, too, urged reform.

“It became controversial after that. People were shocked that such important people were murdered over the case of one person,” says Mr. Ullah, who said nobody wanted to touch Ms. Bibi’s case out of fear – which is why it took so long for her to be pardoned. “People started believing that anyone involved in the case could die.”

But even in Ms. Bibi’s darkest moments, when religious clerics – who wield serious power in Pakistani society – were bent on preventing her pardon, she had faith she would be freed. “I never lost hope about getting freedom. I knew God was standing by me,” she says. “Even with all the people who helped me, if God didn’t want me here, how could I have made it?”

More help eventually came in the form of international pressure, including from Jan Figel, the European Union’s special envoy for the freedom of religion or belief. Mr. Figel says a large part of the EU’s diplomatic pressure on Pakistan came in the form of a European trade scheme that can fluctuate tariff levels with developing countries based on certain factors, such as their record on human rights and governance.

Ms. Bibi’s acquittal eventually came in 2018, shortly after current Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan assumed office. Even then, the country’s government thought it was a national security risk to simply free her. Instead, they kept her in an undisclosed secure location for months.

“There were very violent riots in Pakistan. Therefore any move was very sensitive,” says Mr. Figel, who has also served as Slovakia’s deputy prime minister and commissioner of the EU. “The aim of the delay was the appeasement of the situation in Pakistan and careful preparation of the safe relocation.”

Ms. Bibi says the safe house in which she lived will remain close to her heart, but she won’t speak of any details to protect the people who helped her in the tumultuous times leading to her eventual escape, in May, 2019, when she was whisked away to Canada.

She had applied for refuge in several countries, but her lawyers thought Canada was the most dependable option, and Ms. Bibi saw it as a good, welcoming place for her and her family.

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Since coming to Canada, Ms. Bibi and her family have kept mostly to themselves, fearing their lives are still at risk.Leah Hennel/The Globe and Mail

The first and only person with whom Ms. Bibi formed a real relationship in Canada was the police officer who helped her settle in.

The officer was with her when she arrived at her first stop in Canada, and helped guide her through the process of getting her family’s documentation and moving to their current home in the Prairies. Ms. Bibi found it remarkable how relaxed it was to deal with the police here compared to Pakistan.

“I liked her a lot – It felt like she was family. It didn’t feel like she was an officer,” Ms. Bibi says.

That same officer helped set up Ms. Bibi’s first meeting in more than a decade with Esham and Esha, who arrived in Canada a few months before their parents.

“There was a strange feeling in my heart,” she says. “But I was happy and thanking God that I could meet with my daughters again, after the way things were in our country.”

Since then, Ms. Bibi, Mr. Masih and their daughters have mostly kept to themselves. They still feel their lives are at risk, especially with their families back in Pakistan facing attacks and property damage.

One of the ways Ms. Bibi is able to participate in her new community is by practising her faith and regularly attending church.

“But I haven’t introduced myself – where I’m from and who I am,” she says, adding the church she attends includes both white Canadians and people from many parts of Asia.

Besides Ms. Bibi’s wish to farm again one day, she also hopes to start a non-governmental organization that can spark change to Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws. The Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported the highest number of blasphemy accusations on record in 2020, with 200 people facing charges.

“I can be a voice for people who are stuck and have struggled like me in Pakistan. We should do this work together as one, not just for Christians or Muslims or Hindus, but for all people facing inequality,” she says. “It’s not just Christians who are affected by the blasphemy law. There were Muslim women in jail with me, too.”

Amnesty International notes an increasing number of demographics beyond religious minorities in Pakistan have been accused of blasphemy in recent years. Blasphemy laws “are abused to make false accusations that can, and have, led to unlawful killings and even whole communities being attacked and their homes burnt,” David Griffiths, director of the Office of the Secretary-General of Amnesty International, wrote in a report last summer.

The rights group said people will sometimes accuse journalists, artists, human-rights defenders and other Muslims of blasphemy in an attempt to silence them.

Before Ms. Bibi can tackle her larger goals around justice in Pakistan, she has to settle into life in Canada. She still relies on financial support to get by and says it’s difficult to accommodate her youngest daughter’s disability without having a permanent home.

She also wants to one day meet the Prime Minister. “I hope to meet with Justin Trudeau, so that I can meet him face to face and thank him for being able to live here,” she says.

But she also wants to use the opportunity to shine a light on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and on the difficulties faced by refugees here in Canada.

“I am very thankful to the government that I was able to come here. This is my country and my nation now – I’m going to stay here,” Ms. Bibi says.

“But life is also difficult here … I need help to be able to stand on my own feet.”

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Ms. Bibi says her work to raise awareness of blasphemy laws in Pakistan and refugee rights in Canada is not yet finished.Leah Hennel/The Globe and Mail

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