ON Friday, Aasiya Noreen – better known internationally as Asia Bibi – met Emmanuel Macron in the Elysee Palace in Paris. Until 2010, Bibi was an unlettered labourer from the village of Ittanwali, a small farming district around thirty miles south east of Lahore in the Punjab region of Pakistan. A Roman Catholic in a majority Muslim country, and the only Christian in her community, Bibi was engaging in the hot and thirsty work of collecting falsa berries for her daily wage, when she fell into a fateful argument with her co-workers over a drink of water. Or at least superficially about a drink of water.

Returning from the well, Bibi sipped from the water jug before trying to pass it on to the women she lived and picked berries beside. They were outraged, rejecting the water as “dirty” because of Bibi’s religious faith. She was, they said, not worthy of drinking from the same cup as them. An argument ensued, with hot words said on both sides, but those tensions escalated five days later when one of the women Bibi quarrelled with told the local Imam that she had committed blasphemy during the row.

The Imam complained to the local police, and soon Bibi found herself detained and charged. And thus a neighbourhood tussle – about something as basic and human as quenching your thirst –escalated into a full-scale prosecution for defamation of the Prophet Mohammed, which remained and remains a criminal offence under Pakistan’s Penal Code, punishable by life imprisonment or death.

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Despite what one Supreme Court justice later described as the “glaring and stark contradictions in the evidence produced by the prosecution in respect of every factual aspect of this case,” Asia Bibi was convicted, and in November 2010, judge Nankana Sahib sentenced her to hang by the neck till she was dead. Bibi would go on to spend eight years on death row, fettered and chained, with an iron collar fixed around her throat and only a lonely cell for company.

Not that human company seems to have been much solace to her. Speaking about her time in custody, Bibi claims she was roughly handled by her guards, led around on a choke chain, and barracked and scorned by her fellow inmates. “I became a prisoner of fanaticism,” she has said, with “tears her only companions in the cell”. “Deep within me, a dull fear takes me towards the depths of darkness. A lacerating fear that will never leave me.”

During the eight years of her confinement, two politicians who spoke up publicly in her defence were killed, including the governor of Bibi’s own province, who was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards after criticising what he saw as the country’s discriminatory blasphemy laws. In October 2018, the Supreme Court of Pakistan finally vacated her conviction, criticising the quality of the evidence against her, and the inconsistency of prosecution witnesses.

While the verdict was welcomed internationally, it prompted violent protests in Islamabad and in major cities across Pakistan. The acquittal has not abated the continuing threats faced by Bibi and her family, and the crime Bibi was initially convicted of committing remains in force. Finally released from state custody, Bibi was forced to flee the country, seeking asylum in Canada in May 2019, where she and her family have spent most of the past year. This week, president Macron extended an invitation to her to make France her permanent home.

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Reading her story this week made me think about Scotland’s own chequered history on questions of religious freedom, and the unfinished work of freeing this country from the kind of restrictive laws which dragged Asia Bibi before the courts and exposed her life to legal jeopardy. You may not have heard of Thomas Aikenhead, but he was a boy who also came to know the “dull fear takes me towards the depths of darkness” which Bibi so painfully describes. But unlike Bibi, he did not escape the noose.

Bibi was an uneducated labourer from a minority religion. Aikenhead was a student in Edinburgh during the 1690s. She had a fight by the well. He was betrayed by his friends, who went whispering to the authorities about their crony’s caustic descriptions of Christian doctrine.

In a neat historical parallel, one of Aikenhead’s alleged blasphemies was that he “preferred Muhammad to Christ”. There were others. Christ, he said, was an “imposter”, Moses “a magician,” Jesus’s disciples “a few ignorant blockish fisher fellows” with “strong imaginations”. Up with this, Presbyterian Scotland would not put. The Lord Advocate prosecuted. The High Court of Justiciary convicted. The General Assembly called for the “vigorous execution” of the verdict against Aikenhead “to curb the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land”.

READ MORE: How the Kirk had student who ‘scoffed at the bible’ executed

And so, on January 8 1697, somewhere on the dirt road between Edinburgh and Leith, the Scottish state put a bit of rope around the next of a 20-year-old boy, and with a flock of ministers around him, Aikenhead took his last step into empty air, and died. He entered the annals of history as the last person in these islands to be executed for blasphemy – but Aikenhead certainly wasn’t the last person to be prosecuted for it.

That dubious honour goes to Thomas Paterson. A publisher spoiling for a fight, in 1843 Paterson was editor of The Oracle of Reason – an atheist magazine. He opened up a radical bookshop in Edinburgh, characterising it as his “blasphemy depot”. Its window display of anti-clerical and anti-religious texts scandalised elements of our capital’s douce and god-fearing population. The authorities took note, and the common law which hanged Aikenhead began to twitch into ominous new life.

Representing himself during his High Court trial with all the gusto of a man who knows he is doomed to be convicted under what he perceives as an unjust law, Paterson sought to demonstrate “the scenes of animosity, malice, carnage, bloodshed and torture, which the followers of Christ have practiced on each other, for the honour of Jesus, and the salvation of the Christian religion, from its commencement to the present”. He was convicted, of course, but his fate was gentler than Aikenhead’s. He got 15 months in the slammer.

You may be surprised to learn that the blasphemy laws Scotland used to hang poor Tom Aikenhead remain largely intact in Scotland centuries later. To this day, it remains an offence at common law “to publish or expose for sale blasphemous works which are intended to asperse, vilify, ridicule and bring into contempt the Holy Scriptures or the Christian religion”.

It is all very well to argue nobody has been prosecuted for these offences for centuries. The principle still matters. In 2018, the SNP’s National Council endorsed a policy to strip this flummery from the statute book, recognising that to do so would “strengthen Scotland’s capacity to speak out against human rights abuses under the guise of blasphemy and heresy elsewhere in the world, as well as removing once and for all the possibility that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal service could prosecute on such grounds here”. The motion characterised these reforms as “long overdue.” They remain so.

But the Scottish Government will soon have an ideal opportunity to make these changes. Nicola Sturgeon’s programme for government commits ministers to bringing forward a new consolidated Hate Crime Bill during this parliamentary term. This Bill must strip these reactionary laws out of our legal system if we are to have any moral credibility in saying to states like Pakistan, in cases like Asia Bibi’s, that their restrictions on freedom of conscience, religion and expression cannot be justified.

But this reform comes with a potential sting in its tail. For the Justice Secretary, abolishing blasphemy should represent an easy win. But Humza Yousaf faces far more formidable challenges to ensure Scotland’s modern laws on hate crime do not become their own code and canon to chase new kinds of heretics and unbelievers through the criminal courts, whether on grounds of religion or irreligion, sectarianism or gender politics.