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Pakistan freed me, it will always be home: Aasia Noreen

It started over a glass of water, said Aasia Noreen, a Christian woman who spent years on death row after being accused of blasphemy. She was cleared of the charge on October 31, 2018.

But the glass was just an excuse, she told BBC in a video interview. They gave me the water and I drank it, I didn’t know their main reason for doing this, she said. “It never occurred to me.”

Noreen related how she was accused of blasphemy for drinking the water and how people pulled her from the field she was working in to the police station. They had knives, pistols and hammers in their hands, she said, adding that she believed they wanted to kill her.

But when the police said that if the case was false it would become one against them (the accusers), they accused me of blasphemy, said Noreen.

“I was so scared, I didn’t think this could ever happen.”

Noreen told BBC that she fought the case for one and a half years but the judge didn’t hear her even once before sentencing her to death. When it went to the high court, I wasn’t even taken there for the hearings, she said.

“When I came to jail, I cried for a whole week. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me.” She said the most difficult thing was to leave her young daughters behind.

But I saw signs from God, she said, which strengthened her resolve. Lots of people tried to leave me astray and told me that I should convert to save my life, she said. But I said I would serve my sentence with this faith and live with this faith, she said.

The few times she was allowed to talk to her family, her husband told her of how the world was praying for her. “Even the pope prayed for me!” she said, explaining how their prayers gave her the hope that she would be freed.

When talking about Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer, the two politicians killed while trying to protect her, she said when she found out, her heart ached. My hope died because I thought no one would ever help me, she said. “But today, I still remember them. I believe they’re still alive,” she added.

She also spoke of the work of Anne-Isabelle Tollet, a French journalist whom she said had been raising her voice for her across the world. I knew I was innocent and so did God, said Noreen.

“My country freed me. There are good and bad people everywhere, but my country freed me,” she said. She also lauded the European Union’s role in getting her out of Pakistan after the Supreme Court acquitted her.

She agreed with the government’s statement that she left Pakistan of her own volition but said it was because she was in danger. She longs for the day when she can go back to Pakistan.

“Maybe things will change and become better. I dream that God will one day take me back home.” Noreen is currently in France where she has accepted their offer of asylum.

She asked Prime Minister Imran Khan to fully investigate these kind of cases when they occur. Don’t just sentence an innocent person without an investigation, she urged. “If they’re innocent, let them go.”

After all the years she spent in jail, Noreen is not angry. I have forgiven them, she said of her accusers and jailers. But when she thinks of her children and how young they were when she was jailed, she still tears up.

“When I think of the past, I can picture my daughters crying. I won’t ever forget that,” she said.

Despite everything that has happened, Pakistan is still Noreen’s home. “Pakistan will remain my home till my last last breath. My country is my home.”

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