PAKISTAN – Asia Bibi’s final appeal adjourned
The most notorious case involving Pakistan’s blasphemy laws has been adjourned. One of the three-judge bench, Justice Iqbal Hameed-ur-Rehman, told the court he had to excuse himself from the Asia Bibi appeal because of a conflict of interest.
“I was a part of the bench that was hearing the case of Salman Taseer, and this case is related to that” Justice Rehman told the court. A letter was written to the chief justice to appoint another judge to the bench. A new date for Bibi’s final appeal against the death sentence has not yet been decided.
Zohra Yusuf, chair of the independent Human Rights Commission in Pakistan said the appeal delay was “regrettable”, noting that Bibi was already being held in solitary confinement for security concerns. She observed that the judges may be “apprehensive”, adding that after the SC announced its decision to uphold Mumtaz Qadri’s death sentence, justices had to sneak out the back door to the court.
“It’s a sensitive case. I think they (the judges) have realised that if Asia Bibi [is] acquitted, they may be putting their own lives on the line,” Yusuf said. Police and troops had been stationed across Islamabad anticipating violence if Bibi’s conviction was overturned. A senior police official told AFP that up to 3,000 security personnel had been deployed in the capital.
Asia Bibi‘s case became critical for liberals and fundamentalist Islamists alike after it was linked to the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, then governor of Punjab, in January 2011. Taseer was shot in broad daylight in Islamabad by Mumtaz Qadri, one of his own police bodyguards who had been outraged by Taseer’s public support for Bibi. Taseer had lobbied for a presidential pardon for her and publicly denounced the blasphemy legislation as a “black law”.
Taseer’s assassin Mumtaz Qadri was executed earlier in 2016 after the court found him guilty of murder. Justice Rehman was chief justice on the Islamabad High Court which heard Qadri’s appeal in 2011.
Asia Bibi’s family is now waiting anxiously for the Supreme Court to announce a new date for her final appeal in a case that has been ongoing for over six years. In June 2009 she was labouring in a field a row broke out with some Muslim women she was working with. She was going to fetch water but the Muslim women objected, saying that as a non-Muslim she was unfit to touch the water bowl.
The women later went to a local cleric and accused Bibi of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed.The Christian mother of five was charged with committing blasphemy and has been on death row since 2010. A trial court found her guilty of the crime and passed the death sentence, which was upheld by the Lahore High Court (LHC).
Bibi‘s lawyers maintain she is innocence and insist her accusers held grudges against her. Successive appeals have been rejected and her lawyers have approached the Supreme Court as a last resort, seeking repeal of her sentence. If the Supreme Court upholds Bibi’s conviction, her only recourse will be a direct appeal to the president for clemency.
Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, said the family has been in hiding ever since Qadri’s execution. “If Asia is acquitted we will never be able to return to our previous life, as my wife has been labelled an infidel and an infidel doesn’t deserve to survive in a society full of hatred,” he said. “Too many want her dead and have put a bounty on her head.”