x

Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Asia Bibi: Britain spars over asylum in Pakistani blasphemy case

Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is one of those urging Britain to offer Asia Bibi asylum

Aasia Bibi was kept on death row for nearly a decade.
Aasia Bibi was kept on death row for nearly a decade.

Attempts by a Pakistani-Christian woman to secure asylum in the UK after being acquitted of blasphemy charges in Pakistan have been delayed because of a disagreement within the British government, The National can reveal.

Asia Bibi spent eight years on death row but she, her family and legal team have all faced death threats since her release earlier this month and been forced into hiding.

It is understood that Britain’s interior ministry wants to allow Ms Bibi into the country but is being blocked by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Ms Bibi’s husband Ashiq Masih made a direct video appeal to the UK on Saturday saying that he also feared for his own life, and the family’s campaign has been taken up by senior figures including the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson.

In a letter to Home Secretary Sajid Javid, Mr Johnson said: “I am well aware, as a former foreign secretary, of the constant threat to our overseas missions but we cannot allow the threat of violence to deter us from doing the right thing”.

Britain's Interior Ministry, headed by Sajid Javid, is said to be urging the Foreign Office to grant Asia Bibi asylum. / AFP / Tolga AKMEN
Britain's Interior Ministry, headed by Sajid Javid, is said to be urging the Foreign Office to grant Asia Bibi asylum. / AFP / Tolga AKMEN

Conservative MP Rehman Chishti told British radio that the UK had a “moral obligation to give sanctuary to someone who’s been persecuted for their faith, but whose life is in grave danger”.

Following Ms Bibi’s release on the 7th November, crowds took to the streets in cities across Pakistan baying for her death. A survey in 2013 that more than 10 million Pakistanis had said they would be willing to personally killed Ms Bibi.

Violent protests broke out in a number of Pakistan's cities against the Supreme Court's decision to overturn the death sentence of Asia Bibi, who had been convicted in 2010 of blasphemy. EPA/SHAHZAIB AKBER
Violent protests broke out in a number of Pakistan's cities against the Supreme Court's decision to overturn the death sentence of Asia Bibi, who had been convicted in 2010 of blasphemy. EPA/SHAHZAIB AKBER

The predicament is a political minefield for Britain, pitting values against a diplomatic relationship many see as vital for both countries.

Britain’s High Commission in Islamabad is among its largest diplomatic missions anywhere in the world, whilst Pakistan is the single largest recipient of UK foreign aid. In 2016 it received more than £400 million, and disruption to the diplomatic posting would have serious consequences for both countries.

Britain is home to more than 1.2 million citizens with both Pakistani and British citizenship, whilst as many as 80,000 dual nationals reside in Pakistan.

Saif Ul Malook, Asia Bibi's lawyer, was forced to flee to the Netherlands. EPA/Piroschka van de Wouw
Saif Ul Malook, Asia Bibi's lawyer, was forced to flee to the Netherlands. EPA/Piroschka van de Wouw

However, Azeem Ibrahim, a former advisor to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, and Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy, played down suggestions there could be long term consequences for bilateral relations or significant unrest.

“It’s a bad reflection on the Pakistani government that they can no longer protect their own citizens,” he said.

“The reality is that the government of Pakistan has indicated that they support the Supreme court decision.”

He added that, if Ms Bibi secured asylum in the UK it would be a headache for the Pakistan government “that they no longer have to deal with”.

“There may be protests, but they won’t last very long, they are mobs, they have been looting, they have very little religious inclination, I don’t anticipate it will go on for too long,” he told The National.

Supporters of Islamic political party Tehrik Labaik Ya RasoolAllah (TLP) protest after the Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian accused of blasphemy, in Faisalabad,EPA/ILYAS SHEIKH
Supporters of Islamic political party Tehrik Labaik Ya RasoolAllah (TLP) protest after the Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian accused of blasphemy, in Faisalabad,EPA/ILYAS SHEIKH

A similar affair in 2007 saw the two countries’ relations reach near breaking point, after Sir Salman Rushdie was awarded a knighthood

Mr Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, published almost two decades earlier was widely condemned in Pakistan as blasphemous. In Britain, it was named a 1998 Booker Prize finalist.

__________

Read more

Asia Bibi flown to a secure hiding place in Pakistan after leaving jail

Asia Bibi: Pakistan court acquits Christian woman on death row for blasphemy

Imran Khan is caught between the past and the future

__________

Then British High Commissioner Robert Brinkley was summoned, whilst the country’s Religious Affairs Minister called on all Muslim countries to sever ties with the UK..

Britain is not the only country caught in the case of Ms Bibi, a number of Dutch diplomats were “rushed home” on Monday, after Holland offered temporary sanctuary to Ms Bibi’s lawyer, Saif Ul Malook.