The Supreme Court on Thursday delayed an appeal into the country’s most notorious blasphemy case against a Christian mother on death row since 2010, after one of the judges stepped down.
Thousands of security troops had been deployed in the capital as the court readied to hear a final appeal in the case of Aasia Bibi, with observers warning of “tremendous” repercussions for minorities in Muslim-majority Pakistan. But the threat of violence was largely abated when one of the three-judge bench, Justice Iqbal Hameedur Rehman, told the court he had to recuse himself from the case.
“I was a part of the bench that was hearing the case of Salmaan Taseer, and this case is related to that,” he told the court, an AFP reporter said.
Taseer, a liberal provincial governor, was gunned down in Islamabad in 2011 after speaking out for Bibi. His assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was hanged earlier in 2016 in a step liberals hailed as progressive, but which brought hardliners into the streets calling for Bibi’s death. Rehman was chief justice on the Islamabad High Court, which heard Qadri’s appeal in 2011, according to local media.
The court did not immediately set a new date for the appeal.
Clerics at the influential Lal Masjid in Islamabad warned late Wednesday they would launch a nationwide protest if Bibi were released. “Any one who will defend or will protect the blasphemer of [Islam’s] Prophet will equally be considered as blasphemer,” spokesman Hafiz Ihtesham Ahmed said. He warned against foreign diplomats lobbying for Bibi’s release, saying clerics would mobilize the public if she was freed and “everyone will become Qadri.”
Bibi’s lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook called the Lal Masjid threat “big.”
“I hope the government takes it very seriously and takes care of our security,” he told media outside the court on Thursday.
A senior police official told AFP that up to 3,000 forces had been deployed over the capital. “Security is very tight in Islamabad all around today. Additional troops have been deployed on checkpoints and city junctions in general. There is also deployment of paramilitary force Rangers and FC on some additional points,” a second police source told AFP.
Up to 100 officers, many in riot gear, had been stationed outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad on Thursday as Bibi’s lawyer and husband arrived for the hearing, an AFP reporter said, with more throughout the city. “I have made my preparation, we are very hopeful,” said Bibi’s lawyer earlier.
Zohra Yusuf, chair of the independent Human Rights Commission in Pakistan, told AFP the appeal delay was “regrettable,” noting that Bibi was already being held in solitary confinement due to security concerns.
The judges may be “apprehensive,” she said, adding that after the Supreme Court announced its decision to uphold Qadri’s death sentence, justices had to sneak out the back door to the court. “It’s a sensitive case. I think they [the judges] have realized that if Asia Bibi [is] acquitted, they may be putting their own lives on the line,” Yusuf said.
Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Pakistan. Anyone even accused of insulting Islam risks a violent and bloody death at the hands of vigilantes. Rights groups complain the controversial legislation is often abused to carry out personal vendettas, mainly against minority Christians.
Bibi was convicted and sentenced to hang in 2010 after an argument with a Muslim woman over a bowl of water. Her supporters maintain her innocence and insist it was a personal dispute. But successive appeals have been rejected, and if the Supreme Court bench upholds Bibi’s conviction, her only recourse will be a direct appeal to the president for clemency.
She would become the first person in Pakistan to be executed for blasphemy. The repercussions for minorities, human rights and the blasphemy laws will be “tremendous” if that happens, says Shahzad Akbar, a human rights lawyer. Observers have warned of possible violence if the conviction is overturned, with some calling the case a battle for Pakistan’s soul as the state walks a line between upholding human rights and appeasing hardliners.