Asia Bibi was harvesting berries in Pakistan five years ago when she took the drink of water that could cost her her life.
A Christian in the Muslim-dominated and increasingly intolerant nation, the mother of five was quickly assailed by the other women working the field in a tiny village in the Punjab province. First they said they would not drink from the same water bucket as a Christian. Later, they told police Bibi had insulted the Muslim Prophet Mohammad. The crime, blasphemy, is punishable by death.
Bibi, who denies insulting Mohammad and maintains her co-workers falsely accused her, was convicted in 2010. Last week, despite an international outcry, a court in Lahore upheld the verdict and affirmed the sentence that Bibi be hanged. The 50-year-old has 30 days to appeal to the nation's highest court.
“This is a grave injustice,” said David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s deputy Asia Pacific director. “Asia Bibi should never have been convicted in the first place – still less sentenced to death – and the fact that she could pay with her life for an argument is sickening.”
Griffiths said the blasphemy laws being used to prosecute Bibi violate international law.
Christians make up less than 2 percent of Pakistan's 180 million population, and they have been persecuted at an alarming rate in recent years as the Taliban and other Islamist groups have become more powerful. Qanta Ahmed, a British-born Pakistani human rights activist and author of "In the Land of Invisible Women," said those accused of blasphemy are usually dealt with by mobs and not the justice system.
"The vast majority of those being accused of blasphemy don't even make it to execution," Ahmed said. "They are usually lynched or murdered in custody."
To date, hundreds of Christians have been accused of blasphemy, and at least 12 were given the death penalty for insulting the Prophet, according to Amnesty International. This is in addition to the systematic genocidal killing of Christians by the Pakistani Taliban, including 75 Christians killed in a suicide attack at a historic Pakistani church in Peshawar one year ago.
Bibi’s case has garnered international attention, including from Pope Benedict XVI, who publicly called for the charges against her to be dismissed, as well as U.S. lawmakers, such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and many international Christian and religious freedom advocacy groups. In Pakistan, two advocates for Bibi --Christian minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti and politician Salmaan Taseerwere -- were killed for speaking up for her. Bibi's family has gone into hiding due to receiving death threats and believes she would be killed if she were to be released from prison.
"Unless there is outside intervention, this woman will lose her life," Ahmed said. "The international community and the UN as well, empowers Pakistan. Any criticism of these practices is seen as Islamophobia.
"I don't think it's about the Christians or Christian beliefs," Ahmed continued. "This is about the majority, the ferocious Islamists who are enormously intolerant and when you're intolerant who do you target? The vulnerable, disenfranchised, oppressed members of society."