[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] Asia Bibi, the Christian woman on death row in Pakistan after being convicted of blasphemy in a row over drinking water, will have to wait for her Supreme Court appeal after a hearing due to take place today was adjourned. Justice Iqbal Hameed-ur-Rehman, one of the panel of three judges due to hear the appeal, recused himself saying that there was a conflict of interest.
"I was a part of the bench that was hearing the case of Salman Taseer, and this case is related to that," he said.
Salman Taseer, the former Punjab governor, had spoken out in support of Asia Bibi. In 2011, he was shot dead in Islamabad by assassin Mumtaz Qadri. Justice Rehman, as chief justice of the Islamabad High Court, rejected Qadri’s murder appeal and he was executed earlier this year.
No indication has been given as to the timescale of a fresh hearing. A date cannot be set until a new judge is appointed to the panel by the Chief Justice.
Security was tight at the court for today’s hearing; but there was no sign of trouble. Some Islamic groups have protested against Bibi and have threatened to kill her if she is released. Her husband and children are living in hiding.
The chair of Pakistan’s independent Human Rights Commission, Zohra Yusuf, speculated that the judge may have stood down over fears for his own safety. He told the AFP news agency that judges had been “apprehensive” ever since Qadri's death sentence was upheld; and had begun leaving the court through a rear entrance.
"It's a sensitive case,” he told AFP. “I think they have realised that if Asia Bibi [is] acquitted, they may be putting their own lives on the line.”
Bibi’s lawyer, Saiful Malluck, has himself received death threats.
The Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) is an ecumenical organisation working for Christians who are being persecuted because of their faith in Pakistan. Its Pakistan director was in court today to support Asia Bibi. The group’s UK director, Nasir Saeed, said that he was “still very hopeful” that the court will eventually clear Asia Bibi and release her from detention, where she is being held in solitary confinement.
“But I am also scared that there can be tremendous repercussions for the Christians whether her conviction is overturned or upheld,” he said. “If her conviction is upheld, then she can appeal to the president of Pakistan.
“Undoubtedly pressure will be further built by Islamists groups and if God forbid, her appeal is rejected by the president of Pakistan then she will become the first person to be executed for blasphemy in Pakistan.
“Also if charges are dropped and she is freed, there will be huge protests in Pakistan by the Islamists and Christians’ properties and lives will be at risk.”
He concluded: “It is very important that the government takes this matter seriously and takes security measures before the appeal hearing, not just in the Islamabad but throughout the country and particularly in Punjab.”
A reporter from the British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA) was also in court. He said that Asia Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih had anger in his eyes as he left the court. “
"I was present at the hearing and it only took one or two minutes [before] the hearing was adjourned,” he said. “I looked at Ashiq Masih and saw the anguish and anger in his eyes. As he left the court he was visibly shaken by yet another postponement in the exceedingly long legal saga of Asia Bibi.
“I myself felt very disappointed as the nature of the postponement is very unusual, for Asia it must be another huge blow to her confidence.”
The director of the BPCA, Wilson Chowdhry, said that Asia Bibi “has remained staunch and true to her faith, firmly believing God will set her free” throughout her seven-years of detention and isolation.
“Each postponement, of which there were five during her failed High Court appeal, part of her fortitude was palpably diminished,” he said. “This latest debacle evidences that the vaunted Supreme Court is not independent of societal, cultural and political pressure, indicating that justice may not be as easy to achieve as hoped through a frightened judiciary.
“Failing the exoneration of Asia that the whole world is awaiting through Pakistan's failing legal system, her only hope will be a Presidential pardon. No president has ever exercised this authority before and President Mamnoon Hussain will be a very brave man to do this.
“Under the existing climate of extremism that has pervaded Pakistani society, intolerance has been bred through inculcated hatred via the education system in the country. It is a political failure that fundamentalism has hijacked the nation of Pakistan, but will Pakistan's politicians be brave enough to make the right decision for a change and free poor Asia Bibi to make amends.”
There have been many international calls for Asia Bibi’s release – including by the Anglican Consultative Council.