[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] Asia Bibi, a Christian women sentenced to death after drinking water meant for her Muslim colleagues, will have her appeal heard by Pakistan’s Supreme Court in October. Bibi was accused of Blasphemy after the incident and has been held in custody since June 2009. In November the following year she was sentenced to death. There has been international pressure calling for her release, including from the Anglican Consultative Council. At its meeting in Lusaka in April, the ACC called for a a fresh investigation into her case, leading to her “honourable acquittal.”
The following month, the Primate of Australia, Archbishop Philip Freier, described the case as “a disgraceful application of Pakistan’s blasphemy law” and said it brought “tragedy and shame upon . . . the beautiful nation of Pakistan.”
Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, has been closely watching the case. He explained that Asia Bibi’s appeal was originally scheduled for 26 March this year, but was called off amid increased tensions and protests from sections of Pakistan’s Muslim community.
The former governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, had been calling for a review of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and freedom for Asia Bibi. He was assassinated by Mumtaz Qadri who was later hanged for the murder. Religious extremists in Pakistan consider Qadri to be a hero, and his execution sparked a wave protests which saw “100,000 Muslims encamped during a sit in process outside Government buildings in Islamabad” demanding an end to “proposed reforms of the blasphemy laws of Pakistan and death for Asia Bibi,” Mr Chowdhry said.
“The government caved in on the reforms which had passed through Parliament and were to be ratified in the Senate of Pakistan. Many Christians at this point thought Asia Bibi's luck had run out and that the government had failed her and other minorities – especially when they postponed her case due to the scale of social schism.”
Mr Chowdhry said that the new Supreme Court hearing date had invoked mixed feelings amongst Pakistan’s Christian communities. “Many . . . believe the date will be postponed again when the Muslim protests for Asia Bibi's death reassume. They still recall the five postponements before Asia Bibi had her Lahore High Court Appeal rejected.
“Moreover, despite their joy and delight that Asia Bibi will have her day in court and a chance for justice, they fear that a community backlash will result in attacks on the innocent Christian communities across the country. Despite their fears every Pakistani Christian stands with Asia Bibi and is praying for her release.”
Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law has come in for sustained international criticism amid growing recognition that it is often misused to settle personal scores. Often those accused of blasphemy – usually Christians – are killed as a result of mob violence before any police or judicial investigation can begin. In 2009, eight Christians were burnt alive and 18 others injured when a mob set fire to 40 houses and a church in the Punjab town of Gojra after accusations that a resident had desecrated papers on which Qur'anic verses had been written.
That led to a judicial review led by a judge of the Lahore High Court. Earlier this month, the media in Pakistan reported that the judge had completed his review and was recommending five changes to the blasphemy laws – including the introduction of punishments for false accusations. The reforms, the judge said, would need “the consensus of Mujtahideen [Islamic jurists] of all Muslim schools of thought” and “due consultation with the Council of Islamic Ideology.”
Mr Chowdhry said: “Freedom for Asia Bibi would be a watershed moment in the campaign for justice and freedom for minorities. Previous governments have failed miserably, but I believe the incumbent Government is genuinely attempting to return the balance. I hope that effective protection is provided to Asia and her family, the judiciary and all persons that could make this latest appeal a success. Any half-hearted approach will undermine Asia’s trial and create a blight on Pakistan's reputation.”
Asia Bibi’s family and supporters have launched an online petition, A Call For Mercy, calling for her release.