Asia Bibi: Pakistan top court hears blasphemy appeal amid Islamist threats

On Monday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court began the hearing of Asia Bibi’s final appeal against her 2010 death penalty.

The three-judge bench said it has reserved the verdict on the appeal, however the judges did not say when they will announce it.

If the top court upholds her death sentence, the only recourse for the 53-year-old would be to appeal to the country’s president for clemency.

In 2014, her death sentence was upheld by the Lahore High Court. Rights group Amnesty International dubbed the verdict a “grave injustice.”

Religious extremists in Pakistan, particularly the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) group, have warned the authorities against reversing the blasphemy verdict.

“If there is any attempt to hand her [Bibi] over to a foreign country, there will be terrible consequences,” TLP said in a statement.

Read more: Opinion: Pakistan’s ignominious surrender to Islamists

Pakistan’s populist Prime Minister Imran Khan, who came to power in August, vowed to defend the country’s controversial blasphemy laws during his election campaign earlier this year.

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan, where 97 percent of the population is Muslim, were introduced by the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. But activists say they are often implemented in cases that have little to do with blasphemy and are used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas. Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis — a minority Islamic sect — are often victimized as a result.

Bibi, a mother of five, was arrested in June, 2009, after her neighbors complained that she had made derogatory remarks about Islam’s prophet, Muhammad. A year later, Bibi was sentenced to death under the blasphemy laws despite strong opposition from national and international human rights groups.

But Saif-ul-Malook, Bibi’s lawyer, believes that if the appeal is heard on merit, Bibi would be released.

“The incident happened on June 14, 2009, but the case was registered on June 19, 2009. The accused did not get the benefit of doubt. Legally, it is a weak case,” Malook told DW, adding that witness statements were contradictory. 

A politically charged issue

Although human rights activists are not optimistic that the Supreme Court would overturn Bibi’s death sentence, the country’s Christian minority fears that if the judges do chose to decide otherwise, they could face a violent backlash from the country’s hardline Islamic groups.

“Extremists cannot target judges because of the heavy security around them, but lawyers are more vulnerable to their attacks,” Malook said.

“Bibi’s possible release could trigger protests and demonstrations across the country,” Malook added.

In a video statement, Pir Afzal Qadri, a radical cleric, warned the government, military generals and the judges against releasing Bibi.

“Our people will be present during the court hearing [on Monday]. We will not accept the suspension of the sentence,” Pir Ejaz Shah of the TLP told DW.

Experts say that Bibi’s case is no longer only religious; it has become a politically charged issue in the past few years.

A few months after Bibi’s conviction, Salman Taseer, a former governor of the central Punjab province, was murdered by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. Qadri shot Taseer 28 times in broad daylight in Islamabad on January 4, 2011, and was sentenced to death in October the same year.

Qadri showed no remorse over the killing. He said he had murdered the former governor for his efforts to amend the country’s blasphemy laws and his support for Bibi. Qadri was showered with rose petals by right-wing groups as he was taken to jail by the authorities. Subsequently, some mosques were named after him, and huge portraits of him were erected across the country.

But Qadri was sent to the gallows in 2016, and his supporters believe that Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government executed him under international pressure. So if the Supreme Court reverses the death sentence now, the right-wing parties and groups are likely to take to the streets. They fear that any concession to Bibi, or any other blasphemy victim, might lead to amendments in the Islamic laws and open a door to the secularization of Pakistan.

Persecution of religious minorities

Bibi’s family has been living under constant fear since 2010. The Christian woman’s husband, Ashiq Masih, has been fighting a desperate battle for the life and freedom of his wife ever since.

“We are living a life on the run” Masih told DW. “Our lives are being threatened. We receive death threats constantly and are moving from one place to another – and we try to support each other.” 

“I spent almost 45 years of my life in my native village. I had many friends there. But now I do not want to go back,” he said, adding that his family’s life has been destroyed. 

Masih is also scared. He is afraid of being recognized as Asia Bibi’s husband in public. “This is why I almost never speak with Muslims. I am frightened that they know who I am.”

Pakistan’s Christians and other religious minorities complain of legal and social discrimination in their country. In the past few years, many Christians and Hindus have been brutally murdered over unproven blasphemy allegations.

In one case, a young Christian girl with Down syndrome was accused in August 2012 of burning pages upon which verses of the Koran were inscribed. Rimsha Masih was taken into police custody and only released months later, when charges were dropped. The case caused an uproar in her home town and beyond and sparked riots and violence against Christians in the region. In 2013, she and her family relocated to Canada.

In 2014, a Christian couple was beaten to death for allegedly desecrating a copy of the Koran. Their bodies were subsequently burned in a brick kiln.

In September last year, a Christian man in Pakistan was sentenced to death for sharing “blasphemous” material on WhatsApp.

Read more: Uproar in Pakistan over ‘torture and sexual abuse’ of Christian youths

Support for Bibi

The Human Right Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), an independent rights group, lashed out at the government for not acting against Islamists that have unleashed a hate campaign against Christians.

“It is unfortunate that the government has not taken any action against the extremist groups that are active on social media. The government’s inaction has actually emboldened them. The incumbent government is doing what the past governments did – appeasing the right wing groups,” Mehdi Hassan, the HRCP chairman, told DW.

International rights groups and Western governments demand a fair trial in Bibi’s case. In 2015, Bibi’s daughter met with Pope Francis, who offered prayers for her mother at the Vatican.

In a 2014 interview with DW, Dr. Clare Amos, a coordinator for the Geneva-based World Council of Churches’ inter-religious dialogue and cooperation program, said that Bibi’s plight should not be ignored, and that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws should be amended to make sure that they are not applied in cases of personal disputes.