ISLAMABAD - A Christian woman accused of blaspheming Islam and facing death row will get her day in Pakistan’s highest court.
The country’s Supreme Court has suspended the execution of 50-year-old Asia Bibi until it renders a decision on her appeal of her death sentence. Though the temporary suspension is routine when the court accepts an appeal, defense lawyers were hopeful the court's decision Wednesday will lead to an acquittal.
A lower court convicted Bibi of blasphemy in 2010 and sentenced her to death for comments she made about Islam during an argument with co-workers over drinking water.
Blasphemy is a very serious charge in Pakistan that can cost you your life in other ways. Even unproven allegations can spark mob violence and acquittals are rare.
Comments or actions considered blasphemous to Islam carry the death penalty under Pakistan's laws. But the country has never executed anyone for the crime. Human rights activists say accusations of blasphemy are increasing because the law is often abused to settle grudges and seize money or property.
Bibi’s lawyer Saif-ul-Malook explained the prosecution had a weak case. The witnesses had not undergone a test of honesty, as required in blasphemy cases, and the original incident was reported to the police five days later, a time considered too long by the court.
“If you take time the court will presume that you have been deliberating for false implication.”
The Supreme Court had thrown a blasphemy case out in 2002 on a delay of merely three hours, he said.
Despite these legal weaknesses, a lower court handed down a death sentence to Bibi in 2010, a decision stemming from pressure according to Malook.
“I think there is a lot of religious pressure existing in the country,” Malook said, adding that the pressure comes from not just the general public and religious elements, but also from inside the legal community.
Malook, who was also a government prosecutor against Mumtaz Qadri, a security guard who killed an influential governor with his official gun for supporting Bibi, described that earlier trial as “the worst experience I tell you.”
He remembered going to the hospital “every third day with high blood pressure because “even the senior officials of the government and the judges who were known to me, they were not supporting me.” He also remembered throngs of supporters for Qadri outside the jail, where the trial was conducted for security reasons.
The governor, Salman Taseer, was not the only high level official killed for his criticism of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. A federal minister for minority affairs, Shehbaz Bhatti, was also killed by militants because he wanted the country’s blasphemy laws amended.
A family spokesman for Bibi, Joseph Nadeem, said even if she wins her appeal, it will not be safe for her to live in Pakistan.
“Many people are against her and are chasing to kill her. And we prefer to send her somewhere abroad and safe place,” Nadeem said.
Human rights activists think blasphemy laws are often misused to settle personal scores.
But several religious and political leaders defend the laws that many think are designed according to the edicts of the Muslim holy book, the Quran.
Fareed Ahmed Paracha, a leader in one of Pakistan’s religious political parties, said other laws in Pakistan are misused as well, but no one ever asked to amend them.
The problem, according to Paracha, is not with the blasphemy laws but their implementation. He accused a weak legal system for being unable to defend the innocent.
Meanwhile, Bibi’s lawyer Malook thinks she is safer in prison than she is outside.
“If you are out of prison you are more vulnerable than to be in the prison,” he said.
The appeal process might take six months or more. If Bibi loses this appeal she has the option for filing a review petition in front the Supreme Court. That would be the last legal remedy available to her. If she loses that, she can still request Pakistan’s president for a pardon.