By Helen Roberts and Taniya Dutta
The husband of a Christian Pakistani mother-of-five sentenced to death simply for drinking from a Muslim's cup has said he fears locals will beat her to death even if she is acquitted.
Ashiq Masih gave an emotional interview to MailOnline in which he said his family had been 'broken' by the pain of living without his wife Asia Bibi, 50, who has been in prison for five years awaiting a death sentence for blasphemy.
Asia is the first woman sentenced to hang under Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, but her husband of 22 years still insists she’s been framed and is begging the Supreme Court to acquit her later this month.
Yet he revealed that even if she is freed, they will never be able to return to their home as clerics want her dead and have put a bounty on her head. They would pay as little as £60 for her to be dead, claimed Ashiq.
A mother of four daughters and one son, Asia was arrested in 2009. Ashiq, 54, worked in the local brick kilns and his wife would go out into the fields near their village, Ittan Wali, in Punjab, to labour as a fruit picker.
On this particular day in June, one woman told Asia to get some water from a nearby well and she used a bowl sitting near by. She had used the bowl on other days but this day was to be different.
Over a Skype interview from a private location in hiding in Pakistan, Ashiq said: ‘A group of women suddenly told her not to drink from the bowl and an argument erupted. My wife will argue back, she is bold, so she stood up for herself.
'But the women argued and then started mentioning our religion – asking silly questions.'
Asia was abused by the women, saying that as a non-Muslim she was unfit to touch their water bowl.
Ashiq said: ‘We’d been targeted by villagers for a long time and they often taunted us. There had been many arguments over drainage problems and water pumps, always something to fight over.
'Whenever we said God gave us water to share they would get very angry and warn us not to speak.’
As news of the women's claims spread, the entire village was in uproar. Asia’s name was announced over loud speakers and she was beaten. Reports claim she was dragged through the streets and had a noose put around her neck.
Ashiq had no idea what was going on while he was at work but when he got home that evening he found Asia bruised and battered from the beating with her clothes torn.
The following day Asia continued as normal as the family were used to such abuse. Asia believed she had done nothing wrong and went to work.
But five days later, her accusers went to the local Maulvi (Muslim cleric) and put forward the blasphemy allegations, saying Asia had spoken against their Prophet Mohammed.
Eventually police came and arrested Asia. For a further 15 days officers visited Ashiq and his children daily.
He said: ‘I had this constant fear that they would arrest my children and me too. If they could arrest Asia for doing nothing then they could arrest us too.’
A month after Asia’s arrest Ashiq and his children went into hiding - and have been on the run since.
They have moved house 15 times and do not go outside without covering their faces, and if they need to travel anywhere they do so after dark.
Since Asia was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010, Ashiq now only sees his wife when he can, often travelling for five-and-a-half hours to her jail in Multan, in southern Punjab.
He told MailOnline he just wants his wife home. He misses her smile and cannot sleep knowing she has been locked up an innocent victim.
‘I really love her and miss her presence,' he said. 'I cannot sleep at night as I miss her. I miss her smile; I miss everything about her. She is my soul mate. I cannot see her in prison. It breaks my heart. Life has been non-existent without her.
The crime of blasphemy was sealed into Pakistani law under British rule but strengthened during the years of military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who died in a plane crash in 1988.
In recent years, however, the country - which is 96 per cent Muslim - has seen a surge in accusations of insulting Islam, says Islamabad-based think-tank, the Center for Research and Security Studies.
But many analysts see the claims as score-settling or a front for property grabs, and in fact have nothing to do with Islam.
If found guilty, defendants can expect the death penalty.
The charges are hard to fight because the law does not define blasphemy so presenting the evidence can sometimes itself be considered a fresh infringement.
It can also be very difficult to find a lawyer willing to defend those accused of the crime.
Blasphemy carries the death penalty in Pakistan but the accused are often lynched or languish for years in jail without trial because lawyers are too afraid to defend them.
‘My children cry for their mother, they are broken. But I try to give them hope where I can.’
Ashiq has not seen anyone from his village since. They do not even come to court for the hearings.
He said: ‘I hope they feel guilt for what they have done. But I fear they don’t. The Maulvis (clerics) want her dead. They have announced a prize of Rs 10,000 to Rs 500,000 (£60 to £3,200) for anyone who kills Asia. They have even declared that if the court acquits her they will ensure the death sentence stands.
‘I am planning our protection. If she is set free I hope we’re moved to a safer country as Pakistan cannot protect her.
‘She’s not made any mistake. We all know she’s not committed any crime. We all know how Pakistan treats Christians. She was framed, she never committed any crime.
‘I’m allowed to see her every Friday but the expense and danger makes it hard.
‘I try to go as often as I can and I saw her 15 days ago. My children see her about three times a year because it’s such a risk.’
Recent reports of Asia being ill and on her death bed have been exaggerated and Ashiq confirmed that she was unwell with an upset stomach but that doctors treated her.
Under Pakistan's penal code anyone who ‘defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet’ can be punished by death or life imprisonment.
Convictions are common but the death sentence has never been carried out. Most convictions are thrown out on appeal, but angry mobs have killed many people accused of blasphemy.
Ashiq says his wife 'smiles every time I visit her, she’s so strong. Whenever we meet she asks for updates in the case. She asks me about the lawyer. She is so frustrated. But she has strong belief that she will be released.
‘She is a very strong woman. She’s not cried in front of me once, just keeps smiling and tells me not to worry.
‘She says she even argues with the other inmates or guards if they say anything to her. She is not the coy type, she’s very bold. She counts the days that pass. Whenever I see her I take her dry fruits, especially almonds as she really likes them and new clothes.’
Ashiq has hired a lawyer but he’s struggling to pay the expenses. He had to give up his job when he went into hiding and now struggles on day to day work earning as little as 400 Pakistan Rupees a day (£2.50), so he’s borrowed money from family where possible.
‘We live in constant fear that people will recognise us and attack us in anger. My daughters cover their faces and only ever use their first names and do not have friends. My son works as a daily wage labourer but he too covers his face,’ he added.
Asia’s defence lawyer, Saiful Malook, 59, took up the case eight months ago and is positive Asia will be acquitted in the Supreme Court later this month.
He said: ‘I have hopes for this case. I absolutely believe that Asia will be acquitted. The chances are high because we have enough evidence that can prove she is innocent. The incident happened on June 14, 2009 but the FIR was registered on June 19. A delay of one hour in reporting any case can affect a successful prosecution. Why was the case reported after five days?
‘Along with Section 295 (c) of the Pakistan Penal code she is also charged with a Hadd punishment - that is a punishment fixed in the Quran - but it says if somebody is charged with Hadd their character should first be tested, and her character has not been tested.
‘The case is now with the Supreme Court and so far there has been no hearing but we’re expecting it later this month.’
Human right groups and Christian organisations continually protest to get Pakistan's blasphemy law abolished. Ashiq hopes the support from other countries will help his wife’s case but he is not convinced.
He said: ‘I understand the pressure from other countries for Asia’s release could help but I have no idea what the government thinks about the pressure and whether it will make any difference.’
Those who have spoken up for Asia within Pakistan have faced death. The Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister of minority affairs, were assassinated after defending her and speaking out against the blasphemy laws.
Meanwhile, the British Pakistani Christian Association has been supporting Ashiq as much as they can.
The group's chairman, Wilson Chowdhry, has urged nations with close ties to Pakistan, such as the UK and the US, to speak up.
He said: ‘Asia Bibi is by no means the only Christian on death row for blasphemy in Pakistan. There are a number of others, and there are also other Christians who are in there for crimes they did not commit, and are in effect in there because they are Christians.
‘People have to contact leaders of their nations asking them to engage in dialogue with Pakistani government for humanitarian rights alone. We see what happens when someone tries to challenge the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, it got two key politicians killed.
'In a country with such animosity against Christians, I don’t believe a Supreme Court judge will be brave enough to exonerate her.’
The British Pakistani Christian Association has started a petition calling for Bibi’s release. Visit: petitionbuzz.com/petitions/justice4asia
For more ways to help Asia’s case and help Ashiq with the legal fees, visit: britishpakistanichristians.org/asia-bibi