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Jailed Pakistani mother's plight buffeted by money, media strife
Posted on Jan 10, 2012 | by John Evans

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LAHORE, Pakistan (BP) -- As a Christian mother of five sits on death row in Pakistan accused of insulting Islam's prophet Muhammad, new controversies are brewing over her case.

Asia Bibi (referred to in some reports as Aasia Noreen) was jailed in 2009 after a dispute with local Muslim women who later accused her of insulting Muhammad, an offense punishable by death under Pakistani law. Although she denied any wrongdoing, she was convicted a year later and sentenced to death. While Bibi waits for her appeal to be heard in court, an NGO claiming to represent her is trading accusations with her husband Ashiq.

The Masihi Foundation, which describes itself as a humanitarian organization and claims to be Bibi's legal counsel, published what it said was an interview with Bibi from her Pakistani prison, where it claimed to have found her mistreated, in poor health and near mental illness.

But The Express Tribune in Pakistan, an affiliate of the International Herald Tribune, reported that Shahid Khan, home secretary of the Punjab region where Bibi is imprisoned, gave no permission for such a visit, and officials at the jail where Bibi is being held denied the visit ever happened. Furthermore, Bibi's husband Ashiq told The Express Tribune that he saw Asia over Christmas and didn't notice any health problems.

"I asked Asia and she says no one met her," he said. "The Masihi Foundation is trying to earn money out of my wife's name."

The husband also told The Express Tribune that Masihi Foundation is no longer Bibi's legal representation.

"We do not think it is advisable to pursue Aasia's case right now under the current government," he said. "We are in touch with some top lawyers in the country."

The Masihi Foundation countered by claiming it still represents Bibi and accusing her husband, who signed a contract with a publisher for a book on Asia, of looking to enrich himself.

"Ashiq is only interested in money-making, which he has been involved in ever since international support started coming in for Aasia," Haroon Barkat, the head of MF, told The Express Tribune.

Amid the squabbling, Bibi is still locked in her cell for all but 30 minutes a day, according to The Telegraph in London, basing its report on an interview Bibi gave to Life for All, a Christian organization.

"I am given raw material to cook for myself, since the administration fears I might be poisoned, as other Christians accused of blasphemy were poisoned or killed in the jail," she said, adding that a female warden was suspended for trying to strangle her.

As Bibi awaits the ruling on her appeal, her case -- and Pakistan's blasphemy laws -- have unleashed deadly tensions in Pakistan.

Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, was a vocal critic of blasphemy laws and called for Bibi to be pardoned. He was gunned down in January 2011 by an Islamist member of his security squad who, according to media reports, was angry with the governor's stance.

"Witnesses said [the guard] fired 20 rounds into Salman Taseer's back, while members of the security team that was supposed to guard the Punjab governor stood watching," wrote Terry Mattingly, religion columnist for the Scripps Howard news service.

"Moderate Muslim leaders, fearing for their lives, refused to condemn the shooting and many of the troubled nation's secular political leaders -- including President Asif Ali Zardari, a friend and ally of Taseer -- declined to attend the funeral," wrote Mattingly, who also is director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

Two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's minister for minorities and the only Christian in the government, was killed by unidentified gunmen after campaigning for reform of Pakistan's blasphemy laws.

While the office of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said he would pardon Bibi if an appeals court upholds her death sentence, a pardon would not guarantee her safety. In July 2010, two Christian brothers accused of blasphemy were gunned down inside a courthouse during their trial. And the imam of Bibi's village mosque suggested a similar fate awaits her.

"If the law punishes someone for blasphemy, and that person is pardoned, then we will also take the law in our hands," Qari Mohammed Salim told the BBC.

Such threats are on Bibi's mind as she accepts that some things are out of her hands.

"I am hopeful that I will be released, although there is a bounty of about $8,000 offered by the Islamic clerics to anyone who will kill me," she told Life for All, according to The Telegraph. "I have left everything on God, I will accept His will."
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John Evans is a writer based in Houston.
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