By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
LAHORE, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– Pakistan’s highest court has suspended the death sentence of Asia Bibi, the Christian mother of five who faces execution by hanging under under the country’s controversial blasphemy legislation.
The Supreme Court in Lahore said it would not allow the execution until making a decision on her appeal of the death sentence. Though the temporary suspension is routine when the court accepts an appeal, defense lawyers were hopeful the court’s decision Wednesday, July 22, would lead to an acquittal, BosNewsLife learned.
Wednesday’s proceedings in Lahore, saw a three-member bench headed by Justice Main Sazib Nazir accepted Bibi’s petition for the review of her case.
Bibi’s lawyer Saif-ul-Malook told reporters that the prosecution had a weak case. The witnesses had not undergone a test of honesty, as required in blasphemy cases, and the original incident was reported to the police five days later, a time considered too long by the court.
“If you take time the court will presume that you have been deliberating for false implication.” The Supreme Court had thrown a blasphemy case out in 2002 on a delay of merely three hours, he added.
Despite these legal weaknesses, a lower court handed down a death sentence to Bibi in 2010, amid mounting pressure from Muslims, trial observers said. “I think there is a lot of religious pressure existing in the country,” Malook said, adding that the pressure comes from not just the general public and religious elements, but also from inside the legal community.
Malook, who was also a government prosecutor against Mumtaz Qadri, a security guard who killed an influential governor with his official gun for supporting Bibi, described that earlier trial as “the worst experience I tell you.”
Charges against the now 50-year-old Bibi originates from a dispute that took place in June 2009 between her and a group of Muslim women with whom she was harvesting berries in Sheikhupura. Muslims reportedly became angry when Bibi, a Christian whom they considered unclean, drank water from the same water bowl as the Muslim women.
An argument between Bibi and the Muslim women ensued and the Muslim women allegedly told a local cleric that Bibi had blasphemed against Islam by saying, “My Christ died [and rose from death] for me, what did [Prophet] Muhammed do for you?”
Bibi has been on death row since her conviction and death sentence were announced by the Session’s Court in District Nankana of Pujab province in 2010. Her appeal hearing was held in October 2014 at the Lahore High Court. At that appeal, Justice Anwar-ul-Haq, one member of a two-judge bench, passed a short order confirming Bibi’s death sentence.
Rights activists told BosNewsLife they were hopeful the death sentence would be overturned. “The court’s decision to grant Asia Bibi’s appeal is great news for both Asia Bibi and Pakistan’s Christian community, added William Stark, regional manager for South Asia of advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC).
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are widely abused by extremists seeking to settle personal scores or incite religious hatred against the country’s vulnerable religious minorities, Christians say.
“Historically, pressure from Islamic radical groups and general discrimination against Christians has made courts in Pakistan little more than rubber stamps for blasphemy accusations brought against Christians, regardless of the evidence brought to bear in the case,” explained Stark. “Today’s decision by the Supreme Court shows that at least Pakistan’s highest court is willing to resist these pressures and decide Bibi’s case on the merits. If decided on the merits, ICC believes that the court’s only conclusion will be to acquit.”
He said such an outcome would “lay a foundation for practical steps towards religious harmony in Pakistan and will be a signal that justice will prevail over extremism and intolerance in Pakistan’s courts even when a religious minority is accused of blasphemy. ”
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