By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– After waiting seven years in jail, Pakistan’s first Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy had her final Supreme Court appeal adjourned, as angry Muslims packed the court room to demand her execution.
Aasiya Noreen, better known as Asia Bibi, who has been prison since the summer of 2009, was detained for allegedly insulting Islam’s prophet when she offered water to a Muslim co-worker and defended her faith in Jesus Christ.
Trial observers told BosNewsLife that one judge of the Supreme Court in Islamabad, Pakistan’s highest court, refused to be one of the three judges to decide on Bibi’s appeal because he had previously heard all details of a case against Mumtaz Qadri, who murdered the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, in January 2011.
Quadri said he killed the governor for demanding that Asia Bibi would be freed. The governor also called Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes “black laws” and called for reforms and a presidential pardon for Asia Bibi.
In February this year, the Supreme Court refused Qadri’s appeal and he was hanged, provoking violent demonstrations across the country where many Islamists supported his actions.
‘TWO CASES LINKED’
Judge Iqbal Hameed-ur-Rehman said that as the two cases were linked, he could not but be biased in his hearing of Asia Bibi’s case. However Chistians noted that the court was fully packed by “extremists” to “intimidate” the judiciary.
A new date for a new hearing and a new bench of three judges was not immediately set, amid concerns Bibi could be hanged as early as March next year. Some 150 Islamic leaders have reportedly called for her to hang, whatever the outcome of the trial.
Bibi has been on death row since her conviction and death sentence were announced by the Session’s Court in District Nankana of Punjab province in 2010. This is her final appeal as two years ago, the Lahore High Court rejected her appeal on a technicality referring to the way Pakistan’s laws are formulated.
Charges against the now 51-year-old Bibi originates from a dispute in June 2009 between her and a group of Muslim women with whom she was harvesting berries in Sheikhupura in Punjab province. Muslims reportedly became angry when Bibi, a Christian whom they considered unclean, drank water from the same water bowl as the Muslim women and offered water.
An argument 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?”
‘BLASHEMY LAWS MISUSED’
Rights activists say the case against Bibi, a Christian mother of five, underscores how blasphemy laws have been “misused” in Pakistan to settle personal disputes.
“The court hearing is now adjourned for an indefinite period of time and the case will be taken for a new hearing when a new bench will be constituted,” said Sardar Mushtaq Gill who heads Christian faith-based advocacy group Legal Evangelical Association Development (LEAD).
He recently fled to Sri Lank saying he feared for his life and that of his family after he was attacked and received death threats because of his human rights works, including for Bibi and other Christians. “There is much pressure on the government and judiciary due to the intensity of this case,” he told BosNewsLife.
“The government has a policy to linger on so till the accused is found dead in jail. They they can say in that case that she was not hanged for blasphemy,” he argued.
MORE ATTACKS REPORTED
The case comes amid several reported attacks against Christians who comprise around 2 million in a nation of 190 million people.
In one of several incidents, Islamic militants have claimed responsibility for bloodshed last month in a Christian neighborhood and outside a court complex in northwest Pakistan,
that officials said killed at least 12 and wounded dozens.
The Jamaat-ur-Ahrar group, a breakaway of the Pakistani Taliban faction, said it had carried out two bombings and shootings in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
That Islamist group, which briefly declared allegiance to Middle East-based Islamic State militants in 2014 but recently said it was no longer affiliated with them, also staged an Easter Day attack on Christians in a park in Lahore that killed 72 people including at least 29 children.