On Monday, a special three-member panel of Pakistan’s Supreme Court heard the final appeal for justice by Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy. Following three hours of testimony by Asia’s defense attorney, the panel delayed its verdict indefinitely, again sending Asia back to prison while ordering the media and those present to refrain from discussing the case.
The mother of five already has spent more than eight years in prison, accused of making derogatory remarks against Islam during a 2009 argument with her Muslim co-workers. The argument began when Asia drank water from a communal cup while working in a field alongside the other women — an act that her co-workers charged made the water unclean for them because Asia is a Christian.
In 2010, Asia was found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to death by hanging under section 295-C of Pakistan’s criminal code. In the years since, she has languished in solitary confinement as her appeal has moved slowly through the Pakistani judicial system. Her case has been at the center of an international uproar against blasphemy laws and resulted in the 2011 assassinations of then-Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer and the Pakistani Minister of Minorities Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, both advocates for Asia’s release. Her family continues to live in fear of mortal threats and harassment.
Hardline Islamists have warned of “terrible consequences” if Asia is granted leniency, which some believe may have contributed to the Court’s decision to reserve its judgment until a later, undetermined date.
“This is the truth of how the blasphemy law operates in Pakistan,” writes Reema Omer, a legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists. “The accused has to suffer prolonged periods of pretrial detention, which in many cases is followed by years on death row before their appeals are decided. Additionally, lawyers and judges in blasphemy cases live in a climate of fear and face very real threats of violence.”
If Asia loses her appeal at the Supreme Court, her only recourse will be a desperate and direct appeal to Pakistan’s president for clemency. Under the current government of newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has publicly defended Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, the prospects of a response favorable to Asia seems tenuous. Failure at this step could mean Asia Bibi would be the first person in Pakistan to be executed for blasphemy.
Blasphemy laws are being exploited by religious extremists and used to settle personal scores against religious minorities
Like other human rights groups, 21Wilberforce is concerned that blasphemy laws — in Pakistan as well as some 70 other countries — are being exploited by religious extremists and used to settle personal scores against religious minorities. Indeed, the U.S. Secretary of State placed Pakistan on a Special Watch List earlier this year for severe violations of religious freedom. 21Wilberforce supports S. Res. 647, introduced by Senators James Lankford [R-OK] and Christopher Coons [D-DE], calling for the global repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws.
Pakistan’s voice on the United Nations Human Rights Council, whose mission it is to promote and protect human rights, rings hollow as long as it embraces laws that both prohibit the free expression of ideas and serve as mechanisms to persecute religious minorities. Asia Bibi’s fate will be an important barometer of Pakistan’s true commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights and religious freedom — for all.
1. Read more about Asia Bibi’s final appeal for justice here
2. Learn more about religious freedom conditions in Pakistan
3. Encourage the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to act on S. Res. 647Take Action