Pakistan court hears last appeal of Christian facing blasphemy execution

Asia Bibi a Christian woman accused of blasphemy in June 2009 and sentenced to death a year later. ─ Reuters  File

Asia Bibi a Christian woman accused of blasphemy in June 2009 and sentenced to death a year later. ─ Reuters File

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, today heard her final appeal. The court did not specify when it would announce a ruling.

Chief Justice inquired if these things were on record, and was told that the Imam himself was not a witness to this incident.

Mulook said permission was not taken from the district coordination officer (DCO) or the district police officer (DPO) to register the FIR.

Reserving its verdict, the apex court directed media to refrain from any discussion on the case. However, Mulook told the bench that the Imam (prayer leader) himself was not a witness to the incident.

Bibi's is the most high-profile blasphemy case in deeply conservative Muslim Pakistan, where the accusation is so explosive that anyone even accused of insulting Islam risks a violent and bloody death at the hands of vigilantes.

Bibi has been held in custody since June 2009 after her co-workers said that by drinking water meant for water she had made it ritually unclean.

But Khadim Hussein Rizvi, the leader of a radical Islamist party, warned after the postponement that "no blasphemer will be able to escape punishment". At least 1,472 people were charged under Pakistan's blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2016, according to statistics collected by the Center for Social Justice, a Lahore-based group. The reason behind it was that the women had refused to drink water from the same dish as Asia Bibi.

"I'm very hopeful and confident" that the Supreme Court give its verdict in favour of Asia Bibi, said Dr. Paul Bhatti, the brother of Shabaz Bhatti.

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Speaking about Pakistan's new Prime Minister, Imran Khan, about whom there have been some "contradictory remarks", Dr. Bhatti said in some of his statements he has spoken very clearly about protecting the poor and minority communities.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws are often used to settle personal scores.

Muslim women she was labouring with allegedly objected, saying that as a non-Muslim she was unfit to touch the water bowl. After she took a sip, some of the Muslim women became angry that a Christian had drunk from the same container. "You have to be in hiding", her lawyer said.

Bibi's case has divided Pakistan, with millions of Islamic militants reportedly willing to kill her to obtain a reward of 500,000 rupees offered by a Muslim cleric for her murder; some moderate Muslims have called for her release.

Besides, there is also pressure from the worldwide and diplomatic communities, all of which, Dr. Bhatti said, indicate that Pakistan's judiciary will release Asia Bibi.

Ahead of the hearing, lawyer Saiful Malook expressed optimism that he would win the last legal appeal for Asia Bibi.

If the top court bench eventually upholds Asia Bibi's conviction, her only recourse will be a direct appeal to the president for clemency.

Asia Bibi has already spent eight years in prison and her family has been subjected to continuous threats and harassment.

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