The Supreme Court of Pakistan said it had reached a judgment on Monday after hearing the final appeal of a Christian mother on death row for blasphemy, but that it will announce its ruling later in the notorious case, which has gone all the way to the Vatican.
Chief Justice Saqib Nisar did not say when the three-member bench would reveal the fate of Aasia Bibi—a mother-of-five who has been on death row since 2010 and could become the first person in Pakistan to be executed under the controversial blasphemy laws. He said the delay was “for reasons to be recorded later,” and told media they could not publish comments on the inflammatory case.
Bibi’s is the most high-profile blasphemy case in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where the accusation is so explosive that anyone even accused of insulting Islam risks a violent and bloody death at the hands of vigilantes. Her plight has drawn attention from international rights groups. Pope Benedict XVI joined in calls for her release in 2010, while in 2015 her daughter met with Pope Francis, who as the head of the Catholic Church offered prayers for her mother.
If the court upholds Bibi’s sentence, her only recourse will be a direct appeal to the president for clemency.
President Arif Alvi is a close ally of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who launched a wholehearted defense of the blasphemy laws during his election campaign earlier this year, vowing his party “fully” supports the legislation and “will defend it.”
Rights activists have warned that carrying the sentence out would be appeasement of populist extremists and a huge blow for minorities, who already face pervasive discrimination. Freedom in Pakistan, however, means a life under threat by vigilantes and hardliners, who regularly hold demonstrations calling for Bibi’s execution. Many took to Twitter and other social media on Monday to repeat the call.
The allegations against Bibi date back to 2009, when she was working in a field and was asked to fetch water. Muslim women she was laboring with allegedly objected, saying that as a non-Muslim she was unfit to touch the water bowl.
The women went to a local cleric and accused Bibi of blasphemy against Islam’s Prophet, a charge punishable by death under the colonial-era legislation.
On Monday the justices appeared to question the case against her, with Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, a renowned expert in criminal law, listing flaws in the proceedings. “I don’t see any derogatory remarks vis a vis the holy Quran as per the FIR,” added Chief Justice Nisar, referring to the initial complaint filed in the case.
Approximately 40 people are believed to be on death row or serving a life sentence in Pakistan for blasphemy, according to a 2018 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. International rights groups have long criticized the legislation, saying it is routinely abused to settle personal vendettas.
The European Union parliament in 2010 warned it has been used to justify censorship, persecution, and even murder of minorities. In recent years, it has also been weaponized to smear dissenters and politicians.
Mere calls to reform the law have provoked violence, most notably the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, by his own bodyguard in 2011. Taseer had also called for Bibi’s release. His sons Shaan and Shahbaz, who himself was held prisoner by the Taliban for nearly five years, were among those tweeting their support for her Monday.
But Taseer’s assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, executed in 2016, was feted as a hero by hardliners, with his hanging provoking Islamist fury.
Politicians including Imran Khan invoked blasphemy during the general elections earlier this year, with analysts warning the tactic could deepen sectarian fractures and potentially spill into violence.