Pakistan’s Supreme Court has heard the final appeal of a Christian mother of five who was sentenced to death for blasphemy—her crime was to drink from a water fountain used by Muslims. The conviction and sentence handed down to Asia Bibi has led to international condemnation of the country’s much-abused blasphemy laws. In 2016, members of the Anglican Consultative Council, meeting in Lusaka, said it “stands in solidarity and prayer with Asia Bibi” and asked that “her case be re-investigated and that she be honourably acquitted.” They also expressed their “solidarity and prayer with other victims” of Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
Bibi has been held in custody since June 2009 after her co-workers said that by drinking water meant for Muslims she had made it ritually unclean. In November 2010, she was sentenced to death and has had numerous appeals postponed.
Hardline Islamists in Pakistan have campaigned against her release. In January 2011, Salman Taseer, a governor of Punjab, said that Bibi was innocent and called for a review of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. In response, he was shot and killed by his own bodyguard. Two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, the country’s Minority Affairs Minister, was ambushed and killed by gunmen near his Islamabad home. He had previously told reporters that he would campaign for Bibi’s release.
After years of delays and adjournments, a tribunal of three Supreme Court judges, headed by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, and supported by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel, heard her final appeal October 8.
“They have come to a decision, but it has been reserved,” said Mehwish Bhatti, an officer with the British-Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA), said from the court house. “The Chief Justice has banned media interference, but all the journalists are talking about this.
“Earlier they took my mobile [phone] for almost two hours after I tried to take a picture of the court house. The entrance of high-profile people was from the other side, so nobody could see them.”
Last week, Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, spoke at an event organized by Aid to the Church in Need at the Catholic chaplaincy of Lancaster University in northwest England, alongside the couple’s eldest daughter, Eisham. “She is psychologically, physically and spiritually strong, having a very strong faith,” Masih told BPCA’s chairman Wilson Chowdhry. “She is ready and willing to die for Christ.”
Chowdhry commented: “News of her poor health and early signs of dementia are a paramount concern for our community, and the date of this appeal is very timely. These charges have been proven false time and again, and it is time for her to return home to her family. Clearly, she will need asylum in a Western country where she can live out the remainder of her days in peace.
“We hope this time she will be completely exonerated and this wrongful conviction will finally be overturned, as this is her last chance to be heard at court.”
Many churches in Lahore held a day of prayer and fasting. “All around Pakistan, and even many parts of the world, the sense of anticipation…regarding Asia Bibi’s final appeal hearing are now at fever pitch,” BPCA outreach officer Leighton Medley said ahead of today’s hearing. “There is a sense here in Pakistan that once again, battle lines are being drawn: the battle between those who support hatred and intolerance and those who fight for peace and justice.
“There is no doubt, that…you will be able to cut the atmosphere with a knife. There will be protests on both sides, and you can bet there will be trouble ahead.”
He added: “We must have faith that God can intervene in this situation and this mountain will be removed. It is very much like going into the lion’s den.
“It truly is D-Day for Asia, this is the final countdown, and we will soon know whether the extremists win or lose. And whether there will be peace and justice in Pakistan or just more hatred, prejudice and intolerance, which sadly has come to typify Pakistan today.”
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often used to settle personal scores. The death sentence has never been carried out; but at least 20 people have been murdered in prison after being convicted.