The final appeal of a death sentence for Asia Bibi, a Christian mother imprisoned more than seven years over a blasphemy allegation, has been postponed; Islamic protesters, meanwhile, renew calls for her execution.
The appeal scheduled Oct. 13 for 51-year-old Aasiya Noreen, also known as Asia Bibi, was postponed after one of three justices set to hear the case recused himself, World Watch Monitor, a news service focused on global persecution of Christians, reported.
Iqbal Hameed-ur-Rehman said he might be biased in his decision on the appeal, the news service reported, because he had heard all the details of a related case against Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed in February for killing one of Bibi’s most outspoken supporters, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer.
Taseer had called for a presidential pardon for Bibi, accused of blasphemy in 2009 by Muslim coworkers in a dispute at a local water well.
Bibi has been imprisoned more than seven years.
Islamic clerics and protesters have called for Bibi’s execution, regardless of the outcome of the legal case and have threatened to kill her even as she is imprisoned. Up to 3,000 policemen were deployed to Islamabad ahead of the appeal to keep peace, with 100 police in riot gear stationed outside the court, Morning Star News, another news service focusing on persecution issues, reported.
Bibi was not allowed to attend the proceedings for her own safety, and a new court date was not immediately set. A senior government official told Morning Star anonymously that there is a bounty on Bibi’s head of 50 million rupees ($471,000) and that Islamist groups were calling for her “swift execution.”
Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 on charges of insulting the prophet Mohammad while working in a berry field as a day laborer in 2009, and the Lahore High Court upheld her conviction four years later. Her execution was temporarily suspended in July 2015.
Bibi would be the first person to be hanged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, The Telegraph reported. Still, 20 people charged with blasphemy in Pakistan have been murdered outside the justice system, the newspaper said, by vigilantes including prison guards. Others have gone into hiding.
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which has collected nearly 480,000 signatures on a petition calling for Bibi’s release, estimated many more than 20 – in fact hundreds – charged with blasphemy “have been killed extra-judicially by either violent mobs or drive-by shootings even after having been acquitted by the courts.” The ACLJ requested prayer for a favorable outcome.
Bibi’s lawyer Saif-ul Mulook has said his client never received a fair trial and that the charges against her were based on a “personal vendetta.” Bibi’s family were the only Christians in her rural village, The Telegraph said, and seven of those who testified against her were not present at the scene of the supposed crime.
Bibi’s husband Ashiq Mashih and their five children have lived in hiding since she was sentenced to death, and police are guarding Mulook’s home in Lahore due to threats against his life, The Telegraph reported.
Her husband has expressed hope for her acquittal but had not told her of the Oct. 13 hearing date, he said, in efforts to avoid her disappointment in an unfavorable outcome.
“In the prison where she lives alone, it is very dangerous to lose hope,” Mashih told the Express Tribune. “She asks us to get things done fast, but we have done whatever we could do.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)