'Salmaan Taseer came here and he sacrificed his life for me'

Sentenced to death for blasphemy, Aasia Bibi's hopes rested on the liberal politician killed this week. Andrew Buncombe gives the first account of her despair at the murder

The Pakistani Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy broke down in her prison cell and wept inconsolably when she learnt of the assassination earlier this week of Salmaan Taseer, the outspoken politician who had visited her in jail and demanded that she be pardoned.

Aasia Noreen, commonly known as Aasia Bibi, had been greatly buoyed when the Governor of Punjab province travelled to Sheikhpura jail last November and told her he would take up her case with Pakistan's President, Asif Ali Zardari. But when she learned he had been gunned down, apparently because of his opposition to blasphemy laws which had placed her behind bars, the 45-year-old mother-of-two fell into despair. "She kept crying throughout the day. She kept saying. 'That man came here and he sacrificed his life for me'," said a prison source. "She said, 'I know that everything that has happened is because of me. I know in my heart of hearts, that person came here for me and what I feel now, no one else can feel'."

Her grief was echoed yesterday by her husband, Ashiq Masih, who is living in hiding, fearful for his life. "[When Salmaan Taseer visited], both of us felt very happy after the meeting and we were hopeful that she was going to be set free," he told The Independent. "Now, the Governor has given his life. It's a huge sacrifice."

In the days that have followed Mr Taseer's assassination, the dark unshifting misery of Mrs Noreen, accused of insulting Islam and promoting her own faith, has been shared by many Christians and other minorities in Pakistan, as well as by liberal members of the Muslim majority.

While Christian leaders can point to numerous abuses their communities have suffered in the decades since the nation's creation, most recently at places such as Shantinagar and Gojra, they say the killing of someone as senior as the 66-year-old Governor has left them feeling more vulnerable and exposed than ever before. That the senior Pakistan People's Party figure was slain by someone who was supposed to protect him has only made that fear worse. Amid repeated death threats and demands to cease their activities, some Christian activists have even taken to carrying side-arms for protection.

And while previous high-profile assassinations, such as the 2007 killing of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, resulted in a united display of national mourning and grief, the killing of Mr Taseer has been gaudily celebrated by a number of groups, even those supposedly considered "mainstream".

""This is chaos. This is utter darkness now," said Father Andrew Nisari, a senior spokesman for the Catholic archdiocese of Lahore, whose incense-scented Sacred Heart Cathedral celebrated its centenary in 2007. "The Christian community feels very discouraged that someone like the Governor was cold-bloodedly murdered. Those who were supposed to protect him killed him. Now they are garlanding [the killer]. He has become a hero for the fanatics."

Since she was first accused of blasphemy in the summer of 2009, Mrs Noreen has been held in an isolation unit within Sheikhpura prison. Since Tuesday, when Mr Taseer was killed in a market in Islamabad and her case was subsequently thrust ever deeper into the public consciousness, a guard has been placed directly outside her 8ft by 10ft cell to provide additional, around-the-clock protection. She is allowed out of cell No 2 for two hours a day to exercise but is prevented from meeting or speaking with other prisoners, purportedly for her own well-being.

"We just try and treat her like any other prisoner," said prison superintendent, Khalid Sheikh.

As she waits for her case to be appealed to the Lahore High Court, Mrs Noreen spends her time talking to her female prison guards, catching up with the news from a television placed in a nearby room and reading an Urdu Bible given to her by supporters. She is not a fluent reader, said Obed Robert, a local pastor who regularly visits her and supports her family, but during her months of incarceration she had taken particular comfort from the words of John Chapter 14, Verse 1, which says: "Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me."

Pastor Robert dismissed the allegation of blasphemy for which Mrs Noreen was sentenced to death and said her real crime had been to fall out with the local headman in her family's native village, Ittanwali. When she subsequently had a disagreement with several fellow female labourers, some of whom allegedly refused to drink water she had carried, harsh words were exchanged and the Muslim women complained to the headman. Some days later a local cleric filed a legal case with the police. Mr Robert said Mrs Noreen's case, as, say campaigners, with the overwhelming majority of instances of so-called blasphemy, was more concerned with a personal falling-out rather than a genuine dispute over religion.

But in Sheikhpura, and elsewhere across Punjab's rural heartland, there is little room for such subtlety or nuance. At a roundabout near the town's entrance, several banners proclaimed support for the blasphemy laws, tightened under the rule of General Zia ul-Haq as part of his efforts to secure the support of religious conservatives, and which Mr Taseer had sought to overturn. One was sponsored by the Tehrik-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool, believed to be a front group for a banned religious organisation, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Another, apparently placed there by a local traders' association, read: "There is only one punishment for the blasphemer – beheading."

In such a climate, many Christians in this town, 25 miles north-west of Lahore, are anxious. One senior pastor who asked not to be named and who welcomes several hundred worshippers to his partially-completed church every Sunday, said members of the community were being forced to keep a low profile, particularly when they moved beyond their own streets. There have been loud, angry protests outside the jail and the nearby compound of the Lahore Bible Study Institute, which, like the prison itself, was constructed during the years of British rule.

Mr Masih, Mrs Noreen's husband, who has three other children from an earlier marriage, has supported his wife since her incarceration, moving his family to a single-room house located in a largely Christian neighbourhood in Sheikhpura, little more than a mile from the jail. But within hours of Mr Taseer's death, and amid mounting concerns from other Christians about their own safety, Mr Masih was forced to flee and go into hiding.

He is now living in a village several hours from the town and using an assumed identity, too terrified to tell his new neighbours who he really is. Speaking by mobile phone, he said that even if his wife was cleared by the appeal process they would no longer feel safe living in Pakistan. Indeed, activists said Christians in several European countries, including the UK, had said they would try to find a safe refuge for Mrs Noreen and her family.

"We are feeling very scared and we feel it will never be safe for us in Pakistan," he said. "I get my strength from Jesus Christ and I am hopeful that he is going to save my wife. But now the circumstances have changed. We will have to wait and see what happens."