UK Government accused of doing too little to help Asia Bibi

Bibi's daughters pose with an image of their mother while standing outside their residence in Sheikhupura located in Pakistan's Punjab Province.Reuters

Days after Asia Bibi arrived in Canada, the UK Government has faced further scrutiny over its failure to offer the Christian mother asylum. 

Documents obtained through a freedom of information request by UK charity, the Arise Foundation, reveal that the plight of mother-of-five was not raised in diplomatic telegrams between Whitehall and the High Commission in Pakistan until her acquittal on blasphemy charges last October, after eight years on death row, The Sunday Times reports. 

Arise Foundation director Luke de Pulford was critical of the revelations.

"Since Asia's acquittal hit the headlines the UK government has been falling over itself to claim credit," he told The Sunday Times.

"The truth is they have resisted pressure to help her for the better part of a decade.

"Ministers were being asked in parliament about the case as early as 2010 but Asia didn't warrant a mention in dispatches until her case had become a global issue."

Responding to the telegrams in The Sunday Times, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said: "We have raised the Asia Bibi case with the Pakistan government for a number of years."

It added: "All those who have campaigned on Asia Bibi's behalf, including in the UK, will be delighted at the news she has travelled freely and has been reunited with her family. The UK strongly supports global respect for freedom of religious belief."

Mrs Bibi was first accused of blasphemy in 2009 after sharing a cup of water with Muslim colleagues who were offended that she had made the vessel unclean.  During a heated exchange, she was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, a crime punishable by death in Pakistan under its strict blasphemy laws. 

In 2010, she was sentenced to death and was only acquitted last October after an appeals process that lasted years.  In that time, two Pakistani government ministers who spoke up for her, Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, were assassinated. 

Despite being freed from prison, Bibi was forced to stay in the country until last week for reasons that remain unclear.  Prime Minister Imran Khan said it was due to a "minor complication".

There were also concerns for her safety as radicals continued to call for her original death sentence to be reinstated, and she was moved from one secret location to another.

Following her acquittal, the UK Government came under pressure to grant her asylum, with Rehman Chishti resigning as Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party over its failure to do so. 

Rumours abounded that the UK Government was afraid of repercussions against British diplomats in Pakistan. 

Prime Minister Theresa May and Home Secretary Sajid Javid repeatedly insisted that Bibi's safety was the UK Government's "primary concern" and that they were working with international partners on the best solution for her. 

Following Bibi's arrival in Canada last week, Chishti again questioned the Government's failure to offer her asylum in the Commons. 

"Why is it that Canada offered sanctuary to her and that the United Kingdom did not offer her sanctuary in the United Kingdom?" he said. 

"And will future such cases on religious freedom be looked at differently by the United Kingdom?"

Answering the question, Mrs May said: "Our concern was always the safety and security of Asia Bibi.  We were in close contact with the government of Pakistan but [also] a range of international partners who were considering the offers that would be available to Asia Bibi.

"Canada made this offer and we felt it was right and appropriate that we supported the offer that Canada had made.  I think that's important." 

She continued: "We have a proud record of welcoming people here who have been persecuted because of their faith and we will continue with that record, but in individual cases like this I think it's important for international partners to work together with the key aim constantly of ensuring that the safety and security and best interests of the individual are what is put first and foremost."

Mrs Bibi arrived in Canada the same week as Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt affirmed that the UK Government was committed to improving its support for persecuted Christians. 

Following a meeting of faith leaders with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at Lambeth Palace, the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mr Hunt said the persecution of Christians was an issue "close to both our hearts". 

"I welcome the government of Pakistan's commitment to uphold the rule of law following the decision of its Supreme Court to confirm her acquittal," he said.

"Britain's primary concern has always been the safety of Asia Bibi and her family; we have been in contact with our partners to help ensure that she gets the freedom and security she deserves."

Mr Hunt launched a review into the persecution of Christians in January and admitted at the time that he wanted to "banish any hesitation to look into this issue without fear or favour that may exist because of our imperial history, because of the concerns that some people might have in linking the activities of missionaries in the nineteenth century to misguided imperialism".

"And all those concerns may have led to a hesitation to really look at this issue properly, and we don't want that to happen," he added. 

An interim report from the review was released earlier this month and said that levels of persecution against Christians were reaching the level of "genocide".