The Supreme Court of Pakistan will begin hearing the final appeal on Monday of a Christian mother on death row for blasphemy, a notorious case that could see her become the first to be executed under the controversial laws.
Aasia Bibi, a mother of five, has been on death row since 2010, when Pope Benedict XVI joined in international calls for her release. In 2015 her daughter met with Pope Francis, who as the head of the Catholic Church offered prayers for her mother.
It was not clear if the three-judge Supreme Court bench would issue their ruling on Monday. If they uphold Bibi’s conviction, her only recourse will be a direct appeal to the president for clemency.
Hardliners in Pakistan regularly call for her execution, including in Islamabad’s Lal Masjid. One of the most vocal groups, the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), has vowed to attend the hearing. But 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 in the Muslim-majority country.
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 so sensitive in Pakistan that anyone even accused of insulting Islam risks a violent and bloody death at the hands of vigilantes.
The charge is punishable by a maximum penalty of death under legislation that rights groups say is routinely abused to settle personal vendettas.
But calls for reform have regularly been met with violence and rejected.
Prime Minister Imran Khan launched a wholehearted defense of the laws during his election campaign earlier this year, vowing his party “fully” supports the legislation and “will defend it.”