Anne-Isabelle Tollet, French journalist, novelist, and screenwriter, addresses the 4th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Anne-Isabelle Tollet: I am very honored to be here today and speak to you today about Asia Bibi. She is a 42-year-old wife and mother, she is a Pakistani, and she has been locked up in prison for the past 3 years. She is on death row, awaiting hanging and she is in isolation. Her crime is that she drank a cup of water from a well. This seems incredible to us, but that is the nightmare that Asia Bibi and her family [have] been experiencing for the past 3 years.
We will project ourselves into Pakistan in the Punjab province. Asia Bibi’s life is shattered on June 14th, 2009. She goes to gather berries with other women; she is the only Christian woman. It is stiflingly hot, 45 degrees Celsius in the shade and the work is exhausting. She decides to take a cup of water from the common well, and then another. And that is when the other women say that she has soiled the water because she is Christian. The other women continue and say that she has now made the water impure and because of her they won’t be able to drink the water. She responded, without wanting to provoke them, that she had worked with a couple of Muslims and she had shared their cups and wasn’t aware of the outcry she [would] elicit [when] she said: “I don’t think the prophet Mohammad shares your view.” And now the other women accuse her of having spoken on behalf of Mohammad and that she has committed blasphemy. The only way for her to get out of that situation would be for her to convert to Islam. She responded that she respects Islam and Mohammad but “I believe in Jesus Christ and don’t want to convert to Islam.” The woman went to see the Mullah of the village, who immediately filed suit against her with the district head for blasphemy. In Pakistan, being accused of blasphemy is a death sentence because if the courts don’t kill you, the people in the streets will. And she was then put in a prison cell an hour away from Lawa and today is the only woman in Pakistan whose been sentenced to death. This death sentence took place one year after she was thrown into prison. Her lawyer fled, afraid of being put to death as well. But the date of her trial has not been set by the high court. Until then she can be assassinated at any moment or die from exhaustion because her conditions of detention are very harsh. 5,000 Euros have been offered to whomever would kill her and therefore her life is in danger every minute passes.
We should try to imagine her conditions of detention; they are truly atrocious. She lives in a microscopic-sized cell, where she can touch the walls by stretching out her arms. There are no windows; she sees no day and night. She cannot go outside and take a walk, so she has become stiffened. She cannot talk to anyone. She is bullied by the wardens because they insult her because, of course, the wardens are Muslim. She attends to her call of nature in her own cell on the floor. She eats only the food that her husband brings her every week so that she won’t be poisoned. She is suffocating from the heat most of the time. Her cell is like a tomb, infested with insects and vermin.
Her case has shed light on blasphemy that has sent thousands of women and people to prison. We should point out that Muslims are the first victims. It so happens that Asia Bibi is Christian, but Muslims also suffer from this law. This law is ruthless. It allows people to settle scores with neighbors. In her case, the villagers wanted to respond to an insult because she stood up to them.
In Pakistan, Christians are second-class citizens and they have to keep a low profile. Since the war in Afghanistan in 2001, they [Christians] are suspected of supporting the West because they have the same religion. In Pakistan, one’s religion is one’s identity. The Accusations against the so-called blasphemers are increasingly absurd, and crowds are encouraged to take justice into their own hands. A Muslim doctor was accused of blasphemy and was thrown into prison after writing visiting card with the first name Mohammed on it. But in Pakistan, 99% of Muslim citizens are called Mohammed. So what can you say to civil society in Pakistan who wonders how blasphemy can be invoked every time you tear a page of a newspaper that has the name Mohammed?
Now statistics are not kept carefully and it’s true that the government does not make a great effort to help us to have an idea of the number of people thrown into prison over blasphemy. But we can say since 1985 and 1986, there are 456 Ahmadis accused. They are a Muslim sect made up of 132 Christians, 21 Hindus, and 452 other Muslims. So the tragedy that she is going through is not a conflict of religion against another but of a law that flouts the basic liberties of its citizens. The law of blasphemy dates back to 1885. The English had inscribed it in the Indian Constitution. But during the partition of India, the founder and first president of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, withdrew it from the Constitution so that Pakistan [could] become a secular state. But when the dictatorship of 86’ came to power, the law was hauled out and put in the Constitution and General Zia-ul-Haq introduced it because he wanted to ratchet up the punishment to defend Islam against any offense. And today, the law of blasphemy has become the worst instrument of oppression that exists; it is an arm used by Pakistani Islamists.
Officially, Pakistan is secular; all the religious parties, with the exception of the Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif, say they are in favor of religious neutrality. The current president, Asif Ali Zardari, who was universally elected democratically, also has asked for religious tolerance. But although Pakistan may appear to be democratic and secular, an actual fact is that fundamentalists have taken power as hostage. We saw this very clearly in January of 2011. Pakistani politicians were aware of the inequity and injustice of this law and tried to abolish it and Deputy [inaudible] spoke up but the parliamentarians backed down under religious pressure. They went to the streets and said there would be demonstrations if the law was amended. There are leaders, two important leaders, who have been killed for taking Asia Bibi’s defense; one was Muslim and the other was Christian. Salman Taseer was the Muslim governor of Punjab and fanatics did not forgive him for supporting Asia Bibi in prison and said publicly that the law of blasphemy was not doing anything for Islam. He was shot on January 4th and became a national hero that day. And Shabaz Bhatti was the Christian minister of the minorities. He fought to amend the law and supported Asia Bibi and he was killed in his car one year ago by the Pakistani Taliban.
Oscar Wilde said that “when right is not might, it is evil.” Insofar as the Pakistani politicians remain silent, then their ideology will be equated to terror. But we know the Islam they are defending is very far awau from the true precepts of this great religion. In the Quran it says whoever kills an innocent person kills humanity as a whole, and whosoever saves a life saves humanity as a whole. Asia Bibi is innocent; the Pakistani government knows it but does nothing for fear of reprisal. [In] refusing to act and impose reforms, the Pakistani government becomes an accomplice of the fundamentalists. Pakistan, in 2012, ratified a pact on civil and political rights and this international commitment is not compatible with the maintenance of the crime of blasphemy in Pakistani law.
Since last June, Asia Bibi came out with a recent book called Blasphemy, where she talks about her experience. She tells us about her experience in her cell. It is a very poignant reading without any hate towards Muslims or Islam. She is illiterate, but she wrote this book with her voice. I was her scriptwriter. I was privileged to hear about what happened and see what has been going on in the world as a result. We have wanted to save the lives of hundreds of other victims of this law. I spent the last three years living in Pakistan.
I was a correspondent for French television. And the first time I heard anyone speak of her it was the day after she had been sentenced to death. I carried out a number of reports on television with my friend Shabaz Bhatti, who was still alive at the time and who helped me meet with the family, who was under his protection at the time. But the reports don’t have the same impact that a book can have. If this book exists today, it’s thanks to Philippe Robinet, who is here with us today. Because from Paris, he was touched by this tragedy and contacted me in Pakistan if he published a book if that would help her cause. So ver7 quickly, with Asia Bibi and her family, we concluded that yes, her case could not be any worse as she was in isolation and there was absolute indifference to her case; only a book that can be published would be able to shed light on what was happening to her and give greater information about the law of blasphemy. Unfortunately, I was never able to meet Asia directly because the Pakistani authorities, despite my requests, refused to let me see her because they did not want her story to go beyond the borders of Pakistan because it reflects a very deleterious picture of the country. But I didn’t let myself be cowed by this; I wanted to hear her voice, through her husband, who was allowed to visit her once a week. And so every week, I asked questions of her questions, who asked them to Asia Bibi. And now, she doesn’t feel that she is as alone. I hope the international community will respond.
In Pakistan, nobody dares to speak of the law on blasphemy, but we can. She has become, despite herself, a symbol. She has not asked to be in the limelight. This wife and mother have become a cause célèbre and she is being used to maintain this law of blasphemy. Her children are also living in danger. They have to change their shelter regularly. They have to hide. They are suffering from the absence of their mother, and they cannot go to school anymore and the youngest is only 9. Thanks to this book, which allows them to receive copyright, the family is now able to put food on their plate. And, one child who is handicapped can now have medical treatment that is very costly.
Pakistan is a great nation; the inhabitants are warm and welcoming and they practice a moderate form of Islam. I have been witness to this. Out of the 80 million people, there are only a small amount of terrorists and fundamentalists. But they have changed the country, they have left their mark on it. I have come to you here to tell you about the civil society in the country that is unable to express itself without endangering their lives. If we manage to free Asia Bibi, we will be able to then help other people who have also been unjustly endangered by this law. Now we must all try to bring about this dream of saving her life.