In 2010, Pakistani Christian woman Aasiya Noreen (Urdu: آسیہ نورین – Āsiyaah Naurīn[ˈɑːsiɑː nɔːˈriːn], born c. 1971; commonly known as آسیہ بی بی – Āsia Bibi) was convicted of blasphemy by a Pakistani court and was sentenced to death by hanging. In October 2018, the Supreme Court of Pakistanacquitted her based on insufficient evidence, though she was not allowed to leave Pakistan until the verdict was reviewed. She was held under armed guard and was not able to leave the country until 7 May 2019; she arrived in Canada the next day.
In June 2009, Noreen was accused of blasphemy after an argument with co-workers while harvesting berries. She was subsequently arrested and imprisoned. In November 2010, a Sheikhupura judge sentenced her to death by hanging. The verdict was upheld by Lahore High Court and received worldwide attention. Various petitions for her release were created by organisations aiding persecuted Christians such as Voice of the Martyrs, including one that received 400,000 signatures, and Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis called for the charges to be dismissed. She received less sympathy from her neighbors and Islamic religious leaders in the country, some of whom adamantly called for her to be executed. Minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti and Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer were both assassinated for advocating on her behalf and opposing the blasphemy laws. Noreen's family went into hiding after receiving death threats, some of which threatened to kill Noreen if released from prison. Muslim cleric Maulana Yousaf Qureshi announced a bounty of 500,000 Pakistani rupees to anyone who would kill her.
On 31 October 2018, the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted Noreen citing "material contradictions and inconsistent statements of the witnesses" which "cast a shadow of doubt on the prosecution's version of facts." The decision sparked protests headed by Islamist parties in major cities of the country, but was praised by human rights groups and those advocating on behalf of Christian minorities, such as International Christian Concern, Open Doors, and Aid to the Church in Need.
On 2 November 2018 however, the Government of Pakistan signed an agreement with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik political party (TLP), which was leading the protests; this agreement barred Asia Bibi from leaving the country. This agreement between the Government of Pakistan and Tehreek-e-Labbaik led to accusations that the government was capitulating to extremists. The governments of Italy, Canada, and other Western countries worked to help Asia Bibi leave Pakistan. On 7 November 2018, Asia Bibi was released from the New Jail for Women in Multan. However, by Christmas, Asia Bibi was reported to have spent Christmas Day in some sort of custody.
On 29 January 2019, a petition requesting an appeal against the court's decision to acquit Asia Bibi was rejected, "lifting the last legal hurdle in the case and paving the way for her to leave the country." On 11 April 2019, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan stated that a "complication" has delayed the departure of Asia Bibi from the country. On 8 May 2019, Asia Bibi landed in Canada and was reported to be doing well.
The blasphemy law in Pakistan has resulted in the extrajudicial killings, incited by accusations, of over 60 people, has been blamed for dozens of communal attacks that have taken place against religious minorities on the pretext of blasphemy, and has been used by individuals as a tool for revenge against other people. Noreen was the first woman in Pakistan to be sentenced to death for blasphemy, and would have been the first person in Pakistan to be executed for blasphemy under the current law.
Aasiya Noreen was born and raised in Ittan Wali, a small, rural village in the Sheikhupura District of Punjab, Pakistan, thirty miles outside of Lahore. Poor Christians in the district, and elsewhere in Pakistan, often have lower-class occupations such as cleaning and sweeping. Noreen, who is a Roman Catholic, worked as a farmhand in Sheikhupura to support her family. She married Ashiq Masih, a brick laborer who had three children from a previous marriage, and had two children with him. Noreen and her family were the only Christians in the village. Before her incarceration, she had been repeatedly urged by her fellow workers to convert to Islam.
In June 2009, Noreen was harvesting falsa berries with a group of other women farmhands in a field in Sheikhupura. She was asked at one point to fetch water from a nearby well; she complied but stopped to take a drink with an old metal cup she had found lying next to the well. A neighbor of Noreen, Musarat, who had been involved in a running feud with Noreen's family about some property damage, saw her and angrily told her that it was forbidden for a Christian to drink water from the same utensil from which Muslims drink, and that some of the other workers considered her to be unclean because she was a Christian, referring to the caste system in Pakistan. Noreen recounts that when they made derogatory statements about Christianity and demanded that she convert to Islam, she responded, "I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind? And why should it be me that converts instead of you?" An argument ensued.
A mob came to her house, beating her and members of her family before she was taken away by the police. The police initiated an investigation about her remarks, resulting in her arrest under Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code.
In an interview with CNN, local police officer Muhammad Ilyas claimed that Noreen said that "the Quran is fake and your prophet remained in bed for one month before his death because he had worms in his ears and mouth. He married Khadija just for money and after looting her kicked her out of the house". Village Imam Qari Muhammad Salim, to whom Noreen's coworkers reported the alleged blasphemy, claimed that Noreen confessed to him and apologized. On the other hand, the Asian Human Rights Commission published a letter that stated:
Five days after the incident, a local Muslim leader, Qari Salem, jumped into the matter and pressured some people in the area to claim that she committed blasphemy. When finding no way to get Ms. Bibi to confess, Salem used the loudspeakers of the mosque, as other Muslim leaders usually do in the cases of alleged blasphemy acts, to spread the news of blasphemy and instigate the people of the locality to punish the alleged blasphemer. The people of the locality beat her severely in the presence of her children.
She was subsequently imprisoned for over a year before being formally charged.