INDEX ON CENSORSHIP | VOL.51 | NO.3
“In Pakistan, there is a system where people send each other food, like sweet rice. Mother and father were home alone one day, and my mother ate the sweet rice that was delivered to her doorstep,” she said.
After she ate the rice, Sehar’s mother began developing breathing problems.
“I came to the house and took her to the hospital. The doctor said that she consumed something that attacked her lungs.”
When the siblings tried to file an application to investigate the details of their mother’s death, the neighbours and local clerics threatened them and said that if they filed one, the locals and the imam would file a blasphemy charge against the family.
The family obliged, not wanting to get in trouble. After their mother died, they went back to their normal routine, their jobs and universities. Then, one day when they returned home, they found their father on the floor of the house, dead.
Sehar thought someone had killed him by strangling him. The siblings wanted an investigation, but the clerics again threatened them with a blasphemy charge. “They said they would kill us if we did not leave our home and move away,” said Sehar.
Her brother was followed and attacked, so the family sent him to Dubai – but he had to return because he only had a tourist visa. All three are currently unable to move freely or live openly, staying in a safe house organised and supported by Ullah.
“In Pakistan, clerics are the religious leaders. They influence people. They have big networks in Pakistan and, because of the fear, the siblings are reluctant to go outside during the day,” said Ullah. In 2012, Pakistan had 27 blasphemy cases ongoing, which frequently targeted religious minorities. In 2020, it registered 199 blasphemy cases taken to higher courts, often with little or no evidence.
In 2012, Ullah became involved with the rising number of cases. He first came into contact with a woman called Walaiha, who was 21 and imprisoned on a blasphemy charge. He hired lawyers and tried to find media and journalists to write about the case and help them get her to safety. He was successful in getting her out of prison but, when she was freed, Ullah received death threats as a result of his work. The pair married and Ullah fled to the Maldives, then to Sri Lanka, then to Dubai. They split up eight months later and he returned to Pakistan.
After his success in helping Walaiha, many more blasphemy victims approached him. He was involved with the high-profile case of Asia Bibi, a Roman Catholic from a village near Lahore, who was accused by Muslim villagers of insulting the Prophet in a row over a cup of water in June 2009. It
Their lives changed after the alleged murder of their parents as a backlash to their liberal religious and political views
ABOVE: (left) Salma Tanveer, pictured with her children, and (right) Salma’s husband also with the children. Salma is currently in prison having been charged with blasphemy resulted in her spending eight years on death row before her release in 2018.
As many news organisations wrote, the country was shut down by protests based on the decision. Ullah’s house was attacked, and his sister’s wrist was broken. He fled the country with his mother and sisters in 2018, found Australian politicians who helped him, and then settled in Australia.
“I had to give up everything. I started a new life,” he said.
Now he is helping Salma and her family and these three siblings, among others, and wants to start a non-profit organisation to raise awareness of religious blasphemy.
“I want to devote my life to the betterment of the people of my country,” he said. “I have to fight. I need the support of Western leaders – people who are powerful. I want to spread education. To raise money.
“While I’m still trying to integrate into a new society, I’m still helping people in Pakistan because they believe I can help them.”
In the meantime, Salma remains in jail, a death sentence over her head for something that should never be considered a crime.
Sarah Myers is a writer living in New York City, USA
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