WASHINGTON — The son of a Pakistani governor who was assassinated in 2011 because of his support for imprisoned Christian mother Asia Bibi told religious freedom advocates that there are over 200 people jailed in Pakistan for blasphemy.
Shaan Taseer, the son of late Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, delivered a powerful address at the State Department’s second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on Wednesday — the second day of a three-day summit touted as the largest of its kind ever held.
“Eight years later, the woman that my father gave his life to defend has been found innocent by the highest court in the country,” Taseer said. ”For this ladies and gentlemen, I want to congratulate each and every one of you. Asia Bibi’s acquittal is a victory for humanity, it's a victory for human dignity and it is a victory for common sense.”
Although the world rejoiced when Bibi (real name is Aasiya Noreen) was acquitted by Pakistan’s Supreme Court last fall after spending nearly a decade on death row over an accusation that she insulted Islam’s prophet, Taseer warned that there is much work still left to be done.
“As we celebrate these victories, we must be mindful of the challenges ahead,” he stressed. “While Asia Bibi — the world’s most famous prisoner victim of blasphemy is a free woman — I want you all to know that there are 200 Asia Bibis in jail accused of blasphemy law in Pakistan today and these are only the reported cases.”
Taseer has followed in his father’s footsteps in calling for an end to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which are regularly used by Muslims in the Muslim-majority country to take advantage of or settle scores with religious minorities.
Under Pakistan’s penal code section 295, those accused of insulting Islam’s prophet Muhammad or desecrating a Quran could be subject to imprisonment or even capital punishment.
Bibi, an illiterate farm laborer, was accused by Muslim colleagues of insulting Muhammad during an argument, a claim that she has denied. In 2010, she was sentenced to death by a Pakistan court.
“My father as the governor at the time said, ‘No, not on my watch. I will not let this injustice take place for this woman, not when I am governor,’” Taseer told the crowd. “He threw his weight behind Asia Bibi, he met with her in prison. He showed her that he stood for her. He called for a presidential pardon given the weaknesses in the case. And, he called for reform of the blasphemy law.”
Although he was a Muslim himself, Salmaan Taseer’s advocacy drew the ire of radicals in Pakistan who demanded he issue a retraction. When Taseer refused to retract his support for Bibi and his calls for blasphemy reform, a fatwa (religious proclamation) was issued calling for his death.
“Many well-wishers, including myself, caring for his well-being asked him to reconsider retraction,” Taseer admitted. “This is his response that he wrote out by way of a tweet three days before his death. He said: ‘I stand with the weakest of the weak but I have been asked to retract and also refused. Not if I am the last man standing.’”
On Jan. 4, 2011, Taseer was shot 27 times by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. Since Shaan Taseer has taken up his father’s fight in calling for an end to blasphemy laws and has been active in grassroots projects, he too has had a fatwa issued against him.
But nonetheless, Taseer continues to speak out and provide aid to religious minorities facing persecution in the South Asian nation.
Speaking of the more than 200 other victims of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, Taseer said that they include victims who are elderly, children, poor, mentally challenged and physically challenged. He stressed that most of them are illiterate and in jail without a trial or due process.
“If we claim to be working towards a world free of religious persecution, then this is the frontline of that work,” Taseer said. “These are the foot soldiers fighting for the world that we believe in, for a new and progressive society free of religious persecution.”
Among those in prison for blasphemy is 16-year-old Nabeel Masih, who was jailed in 2016 after being accused of posting a blasphemous picture on Facebook. However, Masih has maintained that he did not author the post in question.
According to Taseer, Masih is still awaiting trial after more than two years in prison.
Taseer also mentioned Junaid Hafeez, a scholar accused of blasphemy by academic rivals who has been jailed for years without trial.
“He has been in the first stage of the legal process for six years,” Taseer told The Christian Post in an interview. “Six to seven judges have been changed. One lawyer has been shot. His current judge has been on pilgrimage for the past two months. Decisions are awaiting.”
Taseer said that victims like Masih, Hafeez and others are essentially living in a “legal vacuum” in which their legal rights are being trampled upon.
When asked about his tally of 200 blasphemy victims in jail in Pakistan, Taseer told CP that there is no official figures on blasphemy prisoners in Pakistan but said that some organizations have pulled reported figures from news articles.
“The real figures are far, far more,” he contended. “According to reported figures, yes, there are 200 people in jail accused of blasphemy. Of them, 40 are probably on death row. The rest are basically waiting for trial. It is as difficult, it is as bad, it is as bleak when you are awaiting trial because you are living in a legal vacuum.”
Lisa Curtis, senior director for South and Central Asia at the U.S. National Security Council, told the audience when introducing Taseer that there are more people imprisoned for blasphemy in Pakistan than all the other countries in the world combined.
But with Bibi having been freed from prison and now living in Canada, Taseer is concerned about the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a “poster child” for the anti-blasphemy law movement in Pakistan since the international community has not rallied around other blasphemy law victims as much as they did when Bibi was in jail.
“I think it is all of our fault,” Taseer told CP. “We need to speak more about [the victims]. A lethargy has set in, complacency has certainly set in. It’s the old adage that one person is a story and 1 million is a statistic. That applies here also. Unfortunately, Asia Bibi was the poster girl and we stand the risk of losing our poster girl and letting the world think that the issue is over. The issue is not over. The poster girl is free but there are 199 people after her still remain incarcerated.”
Taseer challenged U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback to press Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan during his state visit to the U.S. next week about the blasphemy prisoners.
“The troops of history will march on and I have no doubt that the blasphemy laws of Pakistan, like the Jim Crow laws, the Apartheid laws of South Africa, like the Nuremberg laws of Nazi Germany, will take their rightful place in the dustbin of human history,” he stressed. ”When that day comes and I hope it will be in my lifetime, we may want to ask us what we did to help those who suffered under this law.”
At the inaugural State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom last July, the U.S. and 14 other countries signed onto a statement of concern arguing that blasphemy and apostasy laws justify “mob violence in the name of religion, or as a false pretense to settle personal grievances.”