LAHORE: A division bench of the Lahore High Court upheld on Thursday the death sentence of a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy four years ago.
Fifty-year-old Asia Bibi, a mother of five, was arrested on June 19, 2009, when her neighbours in a village near Nankana Sahib accused her of making derogatory remarks about the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him).
In November 2010, an additional district and sessions judge had sentenced her to death which she challenged in the Lahore High Court.
Asia Bibi was convicted of blasphemy four years ago
During the hearing on Thursday, her counsel contended that police had failed to fulfil legal requirements before registering the case. The delay of six days in registration of the FIR was enough to expose the mala fide intension of police, he said, adding that there were differences in the statements of prosecution witnesses.
But he could not satisfy the court when asked why the defence counsel did not cross-examine the two eyewitnesses.
The court asked the counsel for both sides whether death penalty was the only sentence for blasphemy.
The counsel for the complainant said the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) had in 1991 directed the federal government to amend Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and omit the word life sentence. According to him, the FSC observed that the word life sentence would deem to be omitted if the proposed amendment was not made in the given time.
The government had challenged the verdict but later withdrawn it. Therefore, the counsel argued, the offence under Section 295-C of the PPC carried the punishment of death only.
He said the trial court had followed all provisions of the law.
After hearing both sides, the LHC bench headed by Justice Anwarul Haq rejected Asia Bibi’s appeal and upheld the death penalty.
Then Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer had visited Asia Bibi in jail and denounced her conviction as well as the blasphemy law. A couple of months later he was killed by his own bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri.
Former minister for minority affairs Shahbaz Bhatti also was gunned down in 2011 after he condemned the conviction and sought reforms in the blasphemy law.
Agencies add: Asia Bibi’s lawyer Shakir Chaudhry said that an appeal against the LHC decision would be filed in the Supreme Court.
Asia was working in a field when she was asked to fetch water. Muslim women labourers objected, saying that as a non-Muslim she was unfit to touch the water bowl.
A few days later the women went to a local cleric and put forward the blasphemy allegations.
Over a dozen religious clerics, including Qari Saleem who brought forward the initial complaint against Asia, were present in the court on Thursday.
“We will soon distribute sweets among our Muslim brothers for today’s verdict; it’s a victory of Islam,” the Qari said outside the courtroom as the clerics congratulated each other and chanted religious slogans.
Pakistan’s tough blasphemy laws have attracted criticism from rights groups which say the laws are frequently misused to settle personal scores.
Lawyers who defend people accused of blasphemy – and judges seen as lenient – also risk being accused of the crime themselves and regularly face intimidation.
Those accused are sometimes lynched on the spot.
Last month a prison guard in Rawalpindi’s Adiyala jail shot and wounded a 70-year-old Scottish man with a history of mental illness who is on death row for blasphemy.
The jail also houses Mumtaz Qadri who was sentenced to death but heralded by some as a hero for killing Salmaan Taseer.
This year has seen a record number of blasphemy cases as well as increasing violence against the accused. Blasphemy cases have also been registered against those who have publicly discussed reforming the law.
Blasphemy carries the death penalty, although Pakistan has had a de facto moratorium on civilian hangings since 2008. Only one person has been executed since then, a soldier convicted by a court martial and hanged in November 2012.
Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2014