LAHORE: A Pakistani Christian woman condemned to death four years ago for blasphemy is losing hope that she will be freed or pardoned, her husband, forced into hiding by his wife's conviction, told AFP Friday.
Asia Bibi has been on death row since November 2010 after she was found guilty of making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) during an argument with a Muslim woman.
The Lahore High Court (LHC) confirmed the death sentence two weeks ago, dashing hopes it might be commuted to a jail term.
Speaking to AFP after visiting Bibi for the first time since the Lahore court's ruling, her husband Ashiq Masih said it had come as a crushing blow.
“Asia was hopeful that her appeal would be admitted and she would be freed, but now she has lost hope,” Masih told AFP.
“She was distraught, weeping for most of the time I had with her, appealing to the Supreme Court and president to use their powers to give her justice.”
Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in the majority Muslim country, with even unproven allegations often prompting mob violence.
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Masih, 50, lives in hiding with two of his five children and has to keep his identity secret as he scrapes together a living as a daily labourer. He visits his wife once a month, making a five and a half hour journey to her jail in Multan in southern Punjab.
Reaching the condemned cell, where Bibi lives in her white prison uniform, clutching a Bible for blessings despite being illiterate, involves yet more hours of checks and screening.
The allegations against Asia Bibi date back to June 2009, when she was labouring in a field and a row broke out with some Muslim women she was working with.
She was asked to fetch water, but the Muslim women objected, saying that as a non-Muslim she was unfit to touch the water bowl. A few days later the women went to a local cleric and put forward the blasphemy allegations.
Amnesty International has raised “serious concerns” about the fairness of her trial and has called for her release.
The family insists the case against her was fabricated, the allegations invented to settle the personal dispute – an abuse of the blasphemy law that campaigners say is all too common.
“We were surprised by the order of the high court confirming her death sentence,” Masih said.
Three of Ashiq's children are married and he lives with daughters Esha, 14, who has problems walking and speaking, and Esham, 13.
Despite four years of separation, the memory of their mother is still vivid for the girls, and they made a card to send her in prison on Mothers' Day.
“We miss her. We want her to be with us as soon as possible,” Esham, dressed in her white school uniform, told AFP.
“I still remember the days when we used to sleep with her. She used to change our clothes and cook our favourite food for us.”
Also vivid is the memory of the day the family's lives changed forever.
“I came back from school and some people had taken my mother from home and were beating her. Her clothes were torn,” Esham recalled.
“I asked them to change her clothes but they pushed me to the wall of the room. They were asking her to become a Muslim if she wanted to save her life while she kept saying she had done nothing.”
Pakistan has never executed anyone for blasphemy and has had a de-facto moratorium on civilian executions since 2008.
But anyone convicted, or even just accused, of insulting Islam, risks a violent and bloody death at the hands of vigilantes, and prison is no safe haven.
An elderly British man with severe mental illness, sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan in January, was shot by a prison guard last month.
An internal investigation has found that the guard had been radicalised and goaded into the shooting by Mumtaz Qadri, a police bodyguard who murdered the Punjab governor in 2011 for suggesting reform of the blasphemy laws.