'Glimmer of hope' for Christian woman on Pakistan's death row

by Julia A. Seymour
Posted 7/27/15, 10:30 am

Pakistan’s Supreme Court suspended the execution of Pakistani Christian Aasiya Noreen (more often called Asia Bibi) after agreeing last week to hear her appeal on charges of blasphemy.

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) called the decision a “monumental step forward in her case.” Another group fighting for persecuted minorities of all faiths, the U.K.-based Global Minorities Alliance (GMA), also applauded the Supreme Court. GMA Vice Chair Shahid Khan called the stay of execution “a glimmer of hope for Pakistani justice system,” in an op-ed.

Police arrested Bibi in 2009, after co-workers accused her of speaking against the prophet Muhammed. That accusation came several days after Muslim co-workers refused to accept water from Bibi, considering it unclean because a Christian had handled it, World Watch Monitor reported. But a Muslim cleric who filed an accusation was not present during the quarrel. Bibi has always proclaimed her innocence.

A trial court convicted and sentenced her to death in November 2010. Since then, she has been on death row. An appellate court upheld the sentence in 2014. Many human rights and persecution monitoring groups condemned the rulings against Bibi. They’ve spent years calling for her release and for reform of the blasphemy laws to protect others from false accusations. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed various petitions calling for Bibi’s release.

According to her family, prison has been hard on Bibi. In June, her family said she suffers from intestinal bleeding and is “so weak she can hardly walk,” according to the Catholic Herald.

Currently, Pakistan has no consequences for bringing false accusations, which often are used to settle personal scores. Earlier this year, lawmakers indicated they were considering reforms.

In arguments for a Pakistani Supreme Court appeal, attorney Saif-ul-Malook told the court the allegations against Bibi are baseless and pointed to problems with her previous trials, including “errors” by the lower courts, according to ACLJ.

One of those problems was a five-day delay for the registration of the First Information Report (FIR), ACLJ said. Pakistani laws consider such delayed FIR filings as evidence accusers had time to plan and coordinate their claims.

Bibi was the first woman to receive a death sentence for blasphemy in Pakistan, the BBC reported. Amnesty International estimated some 8,000 people are on death row in Pakistan, one of the highest death row populations. So far, Pakistan hasn’t executed anyone for the crime of blasphemy, but Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recently reinstated capital punishment after a seven-year moratorium. The country has started executing people convicted of other capital offenses.

In 2011, the Taliban and al-Qaeda took responsibility for the murder of Roman Catholic cabinet member Shahbaz Bhatti, one of Bibi’s staunch advocates and an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Bhatti had filed a report calling for Bibi’s pardon. That same year, another Pakistani official supportive of Bibi also was killed.

Supporters fear Bibi might be attacked even if she is freed. Her family still lives in hiding. GMA said radical Muslims are believed to have issued a bounty for Bibi, in the event the Supreme Court rules in her favor. In the past, radical Muslim mobs have killed people accused of blasphemy or of desecrating the Quran, regardless of evidence.

Julia A. Seymour

Julia is a correspondent for WORLD Digital. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and worked in communications in the Washington, D.C., area from 2005 to 2019. Julia resides in Denver, Colo. Follow her on Twitter @SteakandaBible.

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