‘Finally free!’: Asia Bibi on Pakistan prison, life in exile

Recounting the hellish conditions ofeight years spent on death row on blasphemy charges but also the pain of exile,Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi has broken her silence to give her first personalinsight into an ordeal that caused international outrage.

Bibi was sentenced to death onblasphemy charges by a Pakistani court in 2010 but then dramatically acquittedin 2018. She now lives in Canada at an undisclosed location.

French journalist Anne-IsabelleTollet, who has co-written a book about her, was once based in the countrywhere she led a support campaign for her.

She is the only reporter to have metBibi during her stay in Canada.

In the book “Enfin libre!”(“Finally Free”) — published in French on Wednesday with an Englishversion due out in September — Bibi recounts her arrest, the conditions ofprison, the relief of her release but also the difficulty of adjusting to a newlife.

“You already know my storythrough the media,” she said in the book.

“But you are far fromunderstanding my daily life in prison or my new life,” she said.

– ‘Depths of darkness’ –

“I became a prisoner offanaticism,” she said.

In prison, “tears were the onlycompanions in the cell”.

She described the horrendousconditions in squalid jails in Pakistan where she was kept chained and jeeredat by other detainees.

“My wrists are burning me, itis hard to breathe. My neck… is encased in an iron collar that the guard cantighten with a huge nut,” she wrote.

“A long chain drags along onthe filthy ground. This connects my neck to the handcuffed hand who pulls melike a dog on a lead.

“Deep within me, a dull feartakes me towards the depths of darkness. A lacerating fear that will neverleave me.”

Many other prisoners showed her nopity. “I am startled by the cry of a woman. ‘To death!’ The other womenjoin in. ‘Hanged!’ Hanged!’.”

– ‘At what price?’ –

Blasphemy is an incendiary charge inMuslim-majority Pakistan, where even the whiff of an unsubstantiated allegationof insulting Islam can spark death at the hands of mobs.

Her acquittal on the charges, whichstemmed from an incident in 2009 when she argued with a Muslim co-labourer,resulted in violent protests that paralysed the country led by firebrandcleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi.

Bibi, who vehemently denied thecharges against her, argued in the book that the Christian minority inoverwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan still faces persecution.

“Even with my freedom, theclimate (for Christians) does not seemed to have changed and Christians canexpect all kinds of reprisals,” she said.

“They live with this sword ofDamcoles over their head.”

And while Canada gives her a saferand more certain future, Bibi also has to come to terms with likely neversetting foot in her homeland again.

“In this unknown country, I amready for a new departure, perhaps for a new life. But at what price?

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