Pakistani Christian’s death penalty appeal postponed

Persecution | Asia Bibi’s blasphemy case suspended indefinitely after Supreme Court justice recuses himself
by Julia A. Seymour
Posted 10/13/16, 12:24 pm

Asia Bibi’s final hearing against accusations of blasphemy was scheduled for today in Pakistan, but the court unexpectedly adjourned the case until further notice when one of the three judges recused himself.

Agence France Presse (AFP) reported that Justice Iqbal Hameed ur Rehman forced the adjournment when he declined to hear the case. Tension surrounding the trial ran high and 3,000 security forces were deployed across Islamabad in preparation for the Supreme Court hearing. 

“I was a part of the bench that was hearing the case of Salmaan Taseer, and this case is related to that,” Rehman told the court.

Taseer, the governor of Punjab, lobbied for Bibi’s pardon and denounced Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, according to The Guardian. In 2011, one of his bodyguards, Mumtaz Qadri, assassinated him over those views. Qadri’s 2016 execution spurred four-days of rioting by thousands of Muslims opposed to blasphemy law reform. They also called for Bibi’s execution.

International Christian Concern (ICC) found divided opinions on the judge’s recusal. Some said Rehman stepped down out of “integrity,” while others voiced criticism.

“This is the failure of our judicial system,” Naeem Shakir, Bibi’s former defense lawyer, told ICC. “The bench was constituted a month earlier, thus there was sufficient time for a judge to inform the chief justice of the need to be recused."

Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs said the further delay in an already lengthy trial frustrated him. 

“And this judge didn’t just figure out today that he was on a case related to this,” Nettleton said. “He could have said that weeks or months ago. I think of Asia Bibi in jail. I think of her husband, her daughters, thinking ‘today’s the day we’re one step closer to justice.’ How disappointing and disheartening this must be for them.”

Bibi has been on death row since 2010, after Muslim co-workers accused her of insulting the Prophet Muhammad in 2009. Blasphemy laws are often abused in Pakistan to settle personal scores. But Bibi would be the first person executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, if she is not freed.

When Pakistan’s Supreme Court agreed to hear the Catholic farmworker’s final appeal, Islamic groups protested. They demanded the government “hang Asia,” while others issued threats of violence. Lal Masjid, a mosque with known ties to Islamic militants, warned of nationwide protests if the court released Bibi. 

“Any one who will defend or will protect the blasphemer of the Prophet will equally be considered as blasphemer,” spokesman Hafiz Ihtesham Ahmed said. If she is freed, Ahmed said “everyone will become Qadri.”

Zohra Yusuf, chair of the independent Human Rights Commission in Pakistan, told AFP the hearing’s delay was “regrettable” but could be linked to the threats.

“It’s a sensitive case. I think they have realized that if Asia Bibi [is] acquitted, they may be putting their own lives on the line,” Yusuf said.

Nettleton called the case a “no-win situation” for the judges.

Some lawyers and missionaries were hopeful Bibi’s conviction would be overturned. Her Supreme Court lawyer remains “optimistic” she’ll be acquitted, according to ICC. Numerous humanitarian, legal, and religious organizations, including the Vatican, have called for her release.

“There is absolutely no case against Asia” and the court would have no option except acquittal, human rights attorney Asad Jamal told The Guardian ahead of the hearing. “It should take no more than 30 minutes to throw the case out.”

Due to violent threats, Bibi’s family has been in hiding since Qadri’s execution in March.

“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,” Asia’s husband, Ashiq Masih, told The Guardian. “Too many want her dead and have put a bounty on her head.”

Still, Masih hoped her release would “stop the trend for more convictions under the blasphemy law.”

Nettleton said the family would almost certainly need to flee Pakistan if Bibi is acquitted, and the judges and other Christians in Pakistan also would be in danger of violent reprisals.

Julia A. Seymour

Julia has worked as a writer in the Washington, D.C., area since 2005 and was a fall 2012 participant in a World Journalism Institute mid-career class conducted by WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky in Asheville, N.C. Follow Julia on Twitter @SteakandaBible.

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