Here in Pakistan, Asia Bibi remains a Christian prisoner of faith. Yet as her seventh year on death row draws to a close – it seems that the outside world has not forgotten about her. For she has been nominated for the prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought 2017. The Prize is an initiative of the EU Parliament and is awarded to those individuals or groups battling to defend fundamental human rights. Asia Bibi is in good company. Among this year’s nominees are: a Guatemalan human rights campaigner, two members of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a Swedish-Eritrean playwright, journalist and writer and a Burundian human rights activist. Asia Bibi has suffered long and hard. Her status as a prisoner of faith was taken up by the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), a political group that enjoys strong presence within the EU Parliament. And it is this backing that has made her a serious contender for the Sakharov Prize. Indeed, the ECR’s Peter Van Dalen has gone on record as saying that the Asia Bibi case is of symbolic importance for others who have endured simply for expressing freedom of religion. “It is good that my colleagues and I continue to defend the rights of Bibi and many others”. Religious as well as rights groups at home and abroad have exploited Asia Bibi’s case and the narrative surrounding it. This has led to an inevitable backlash from fanatic forces in this country. All of which has impacted the judicial process Each and every day that Asia Bibi spends incarcerated only strengthens her cause for freedom of religious expression. For let it not be forgotten that at the time of her conviction she said this: “Our Christ sacrificed for our sins, our Jesus is alive.” Sadly, however, this has opened the way for Christian religious forces as well as human rights groups at home and abroad to exploit Asia Bibi and the narrative surrounding her case. Thus have they seized upon Pakistan’s constitutional safeguards that are meant to ensure freedom of speech and freedom to profess, practice and propagate one’s religion. This has led to an inevitable backlash from fanatic forces in this country. All of which has yielded an additional impact upon the judicial process itself. For bluntly put, Pakistan’s courts have failed to recognise the severity of Asia Bibi’s case. At the heart of which rests not just the plight of a single individual – but that of the entire Christian community. Everyday minority groups in this country face persecution; some of these are registered, an overwhelming number are not. Thus the gentleman from the ECR was right when he said that Asia Bibi’s case is of symbolic importance. For it is tragically indicative of the insecurity faced by all minorities when it comes to their fundamental human rights. Nevertheless, while we appreciate the EU parliament’s efforts to the highlight the ordeal faced by Asia Bibi and nominate her for an award – we must not forget that it was before this very assembly that Kamran Michael, a so-called minority representative, thoroughly humiliated Pakistan. For not only did he spectacularly fail to defend the country’s fast crumbling human rights record he also saw fit to walk out of the still sitting session of the EU Committee of Human Rights. Resultantly, I, for one, am unsure as to whether we should appreciate the nomination of Asia Bibi or, rather, if we should feel nothing but embarrassment at how the outside world views Pakistan. If she succeeds in being awarded the Sakharov Prize, which is named after a Soviet scientist, Asia Bibi would receive 50,000 Euros. Yet at stake is more than money, though, of course, she does deserve to be compensated for what she has been through and continues to endure. The nomination itself is recognition of something most of us know: the reality of freedom of religion in Pakistan has no semblance to the country’s constitutional provisions. Back in 2016, the Supreme Court could have easily wound up this high-profile case. Instead Justice Iqbal Hameed-ur-Rehman chose to withdraw himself, pleading that he had been part of the bench that had decided the Salman Taseer case and that the two were directly linked. Since then, Asia Bibi has been left languishing in the darkness of uncertainty. And the longer it takes the courts to reach a verdict – the more ground do they concede to those who would misuse Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The government is burying its head in the sand, all the better to shut out the anguished cries of minority communities, who, too, are part of the citizenry; a citizenry to whom it is directly answerable. Yet the Centre has left them to fend for themselves before a mercurial judicial process. This is not hyperbole. For unlike other criminal cases, blasphemy charges are an instrument of what has become state oppression against minorities. Yet the religious right refuses to have these despotic laws amended. Which tends to suit governments of the day who hide behind the threat of the forces of fanaticism to say to the international community that they can be only pushed so far. Thus minorities become the sacrificial lamb. Time after time. Indeed, nearly eight years on from Asia Bibi, a 17-year-old Christian boy was just butchered to death by Muslim classmates. His ‘crime’ was to drink water from the same cooler as they. Criticising the West is all the rage in Pakistan. Yet it only takes one incident such as the death of Ariel Sharon or the unlawful detention of Asia Bibi to shake international governments to the core. Last year I wrote a piece on the Rohingya of Myanmar. Back then, I was pretty much a lone voice. Today, the entire country is up in narrative arms about the ethnic cleansing of that minority group. And it should be so. Every individual on this planet has the right to live according to their religious beliefs. And this includes the minorities of Pakistan. Who want nothing more than to have a stake in this beloved country. The saddest part is that this is easily doable. If only those at the helm had both the courage and the vision to reform the blasphemy laws, revamp the prevailing human rights structure as well as do away with certain constitutional barriers that currently prevent minorities from participating in the life of the nation as free and equal citizens of the state. Let us hope that Asia Bibi’s nomination for the Sakharov Prize is a timely wake-up call. The writer can be contacted at email@example.com Published in Daily Times, September 23rd 2017.