'Salmaan Taseer Came Here and He Sacrificed His Life for Me'

By Buncombe, Andrew | The Independent (London, England), January 8, 2011 | Go to article overview
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'Salmaan Taseer Came Here and He Sacrificed His Life for Me'

Buncombe, Andrew, The Independent (London, England)

Sentenced to death for blasphemy, Aasia Bibi's hopes rested on the liberal politician killed this week. Andrew Buncombe gives the first account of her despair at the murder

THE PAKISTANI Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy broke down in her prison cell and wept inconsolably when she learnt of the assassination earlier this week of Salmaan Taseer, the outspoken politician who had visited her in jail and demanded that she be pardoned.

Aasia Noreen, commonly known as Aasia Bibi, had been greatly buoyed when the Governor of Punjab province travelled to Sheikhpura jail last November and told her he would take up her case with Pakistan's President, Asif Ali Zardari. But when she learned he had been gunned down, apparently because of his opposition to blasphemy laws which had placed her behind bars, the 45-year-old mother-of- two fell into despair. "She kept crying throughout the day. She kept saying: 'That man came here and he sacrificed his life for me'," said a prison source. "She said, 'I know that everything that has happened is because of me. I know in my heart of hearts, that person came here for me and what I feel now, no one else can feel'."

Her grief was echoed yesterday by her husband, Ashiq Masih, who is living in hiding, fearful for his life. "[When Salmaan Taseer visited], both of us felt very happy after the meeting and we were hopeful that she was going to be set free," he told The Independent. "Now, the Governor has given his life. It's a huge sacrifice."

In the days that have followed Mr Taseer's assassination, the dark unshifting misery of Mrs Noreen, accused of insulting Islam and promoting her own faith, has been shared by many Christians and other minorities in Pakistan, as well as by liberal members of the Muslim majority.

While Christian leaders can point to numerous abuses their communities have suffered in the decades since the nation's creation, most recently at places such as Shantinagar and Gojra, they say the killing of someone as senior as the 66-year-old Governor has left them feeling more vulnerable and exposed than ever before. That the senior Pakistan People's Party figure was slain by someone who was supposed to protect him has only made that fear worse. Amid repeated death threats and demands to cease their activities, some Christian activists have even taken to carrying side-arms for protection.

And while previous high-profile assassinations, such as the 2007 killing of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, resulted in a united display of national mourning and grief, the killing of Mr Taseer has been gaudily celebrated by a number of groups, even those supposedly considered "mainstream".

""This is chaos. This is utter darkness now," said Father Andrew Nisari, a senior spokesman for the Catholic archdiocese of Lahore, whose incense-scented Sacred Heart Cathedral celebrated its centenary in 2007. "The Christian community feels very discouraged that someone like the Governor was cold-bloodedly murdered. Those who were supposed to protect him killed him. Now they are garlanding [the killer]. He has become a hero for the fanatics."

Since she was first accused of blasphemy in the summer of 2009, Mrs Noreen has been held in an isolation unit within Sheikhpura prison. Since Tuesday, when Mr Taseer was killed in a market in Islamabad and her case was subsequently thrust ever deeper into the public consciousness, a guard has been placed directly outside her 8ft by 10ft cell to provide additional, around-the-clock protection. She is allowed out of cell No 2 for two hours a day to exercise but is prevented from meeting or speaking with other prisoners, purportedly for her own well-being.

"We just try and treat her like any other prisoner," said prison superintendent, Khalid Sheikh.

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