During the second week of October, Aasia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian who in November 2010 was sentenced to death under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law, will have her appeal heard by the Supreme Court. It is a positive step forward for Aasia Bibi but there are concerns that the widespread support for her sentence could delay the hearing and even affect the decision itself, and cause a backlash against Christian communities across Pakistan.
Aasia Bibi was taken into custody in June 2009 after she was accused of making derogatory remarks about Muhammad during an argument with fellow women field-labourers, which started when they refused to drink water that she had fetched because she was a Christian. The complaint, which Aasia Bibi strongly denies, was made by a local cleric who was not present during the quarrel and heard about the matter afterwards from the other women.
Aasia Bibi was sentenced to death on 8 November 2010, sparking an international outcry. World religious leaders and international human rights groups have called for her release and the abolition of the “blasphemy law” with its mandatory death sentence. An appeal was subsequently made to the Lahore High Court. Following five postponements, her case was eventually heard in October 2014 and the decision was that the death sentence should stand.
The case has since been taken to the Supreme Court, which during a pre-trial hearing in July 2015 suspended the death sentence pending an appeal. It is hoped that deficiencies in the case, including poor investigation and evidence having been manipulated by the local police, will convince the court to acquit Aasia Bibi.
The case was originally due to be heard in March 2016 but was postponed. This was because of the execution of Mumtaz Qadri for the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab. Taseer had been targeted for his support of Aasia Bibi, and the hanging of his murderer sparked protests demanding the death of Aasia Bibi and the termination of proposed reforms to the blasphemy law. The proposed reforms were subsequently abandoned by the government. Two senior Pakistani Muslim clerics who are prominent supporters of Mumtaz Qadri are currently in the UK and have been welcomed by the Archbishop of Canterbury to whom they gave a formal briefing on the situation in Pakistan; this has caused great distress to Pakistani Christians.
Given this precedent, there is concern that mob protests will force a postponement of the October hearing and, once it gets underway, even affect the decision itself. There is also fear that Christians across Pakistan, who are united in support of Aasia Bibi, will be the target of a violent backlash.
Should the appeal fail, Aasia Bibi – who even in prison has been bullied and forced to cook her own food for fear of being poisoned – has only the possibility of a presidential pardon to save her from execution. Barnabas Fund is providing ongoing support for Aasia Bibi’s family with monthly food parcels and assistance in buying a house.