By Robin Gomes
The judicial panel of Pakistan Supreme Court on Monday began hearing the appeal of Asia Bibi, with defense lawyer Saiful Malook challenging statements by those who accused her of insulting Islam's prophet, an allegation she denies.
While postponing its ruling on her appeal, the Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar cautioned the media against commenting on or discussing the case until the detailed judgement has been issued.
No date has been announced by the court about when it will announce the verdict.
On a hot day in June 2009 in Sheikhpura, Bibi went to get water for her and her fellow farmworkers. After she took a sip, some of the Muslim women became angry that a Christian had drunk from the same container. They demanded she convert, she refused. Five days later, a mob accused her of blasphemy. She was arrested and imprisoned.
In November 2010, a Sheikhupura judge sentenced her to death. If executed, Noreen would be the first woman in Pakistan to be lawfully killed for blasphemy.
Ahead of the hearing, lawyer Saiful Malook expressed optimism that he would win the last legal appeal for Asia Bibi. But if not, he planned to seek a review, which could take years to complete.
So far nobody has been convicted under blasphemy laws which were introduced by former military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1980s.
Insulting the Prophet Muhammad in Pakistan is a crime punishable by death, while offending the Koran, Islam holy book, incurs life imprisonment.
The blasphemy laws remain an extremely sensitive issue in the predominantly Muslim nation and they have drawn intense criticism even within the country. Rights organizations say the law is often misused to settle personal scores.
Influential Punjab governor Salman Taseer and the Minister for Minorities Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, were both assassinated in 2011 after they defended Asia Bibi and spoke out against her death sentence and the misuse of the blasphemy laws.
“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. Speaking from Treviso in north Italy, where he is a surgeon and medical practitioner, Paul said he was not sure whether Bibi will be released immediately, but it will definitely be an important step to “release her soon”.
Dr. Bhatti believes Asia Bibi is innocent and her case is genuine. He said many in Pakistan feel Bibi has been “falsely accused”.
Credible Chief Justice of Pakistan
Dr. Bhatti who has taken up the mission of his slain brother, has high hopes in the Chief Justice of Pakistan, saying he is “a very courageous man” who has recently taken “bold and strong steps”. He regretted that in the past, some of the judges did not show courage, giving in pressure from extremists.
As a case in point, he pointed to a previous bench that handed the death sentence to Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Salman Taseer, “a very good Muslim and a well-known politician”. And recently, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Shehbaz, were served sentences on charges of corruption.
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.
Besides, there is also pressure from the international and diplomatic communities, all of which, Dr. Bhatti said, indicate that Pakistan’s judiciary will release Asia Bibi.