ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court on Thursday had to adjourn a long-anticipated hearing on an appeal filed by a Christian woman accused of blasphemy after one of the judges recused himself from the bench.
The apex court had taken up the 2014 appeal of condemned Christian woman Aasia Bibi — the woman former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer publicly defended before he was assassinated by his own bodyguard.
Justice Iqbal Hameedur Rehman, one of the members of the three-judge Supreme Court bench that took up the appeal on Thursday, recused himself from hearing the case.
Justice Rehman said that he was the judge who had heard the petition of Mumtaz Qadri, the Elite Force commando who shot Mr Taseer on Jan 4, 2011.
On Oct 11, 2011, a division bench of the Islamabad High Court had stayed Qadri’s execution, who was convicted the same month of killing the governor.
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Ahead of Thursday’s proceedings at the Supreme Court, a heavy police presence cordoned off the entire premises and all roads leading to the court, in a bid to prevent any untoward incident during the hearing of Aasia Bibi’s appeal, who has been on death row since 2010.
In its order, Justice Mian Saqib Nisar of the Supreme Court stated that Justice Rehman believed that his presence on the bench may prejudice the Aasia Bibi case since her case, as well as that of Salmaan Taseer, were closely linked.
Mr Taseer had come out publicly in support of the condemned woman when he visited her inside a Lahore jail, received her mercy petition and called for improving the blasphemy law and ensuring that minorities in Pakistan enjoyed adequate constitutional and legal protection.
Thursday’s brief proceedings proved to be a disappointment to many in the courtroom, which was packed to capacity. Litigants and lawyers, NGO representatives, foreign journalists and even some people from the Lal Masjid were on hand to witness proceedings.
When Advocate Saiful Malook, representing the appellant, sought the court’s permission to explain certain facts, Justice Nisar explained that the court would not hear the matter.
On July 22, 2015, a three-judge Supreme Court bench also headed by Justice Nisar suspended the Oct 2014 Lahore High Court verdict upholding a trial court death sentence to Aasia for committing blasphemy during an argument with a Muslim woman in Sheikhupura in June 2009.
In her appeal, Aasia Bibi pleaded that the high court failed to take into consideration the statement made by the appellant under Section 342 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), wherein she had clearly stated that she had stated under oath to police that she had never passed any derogatory or shameful remarks against the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) or the Holy Quran.
“But since police had conspired with the complainant, they falsely booked her in this case. Besides, the prosecution witnesses were real sisters and interested [in] falsely [implicating] the petitioner in the matter as they both felt disgraced and dishonoured [over a] past altercation,” the appeal argued.
Besides, the appeal argued, the high court had also failed to extend the benefit of doubt to her on account of a delay of five days in the registration of an FIR, after alleged deliberation and consultation amongst different Muslim religious leaders, who had gathered on different occasions before the registration of the case.
Though it is a well-settled principle of criminal law, the appeal explained, that any unexplained delay in the registration of a criminal case — as was evident in the 2002 Ayub Masih case — raised serious doubts on the veracity of the evidence.
Aasia Bibi contended in her petition that she was living in a village in Sheikhupura since the time of her forefathers and no one had any complaint against her.
The high court had also failed to insist on the lack of the “Taskiyah-as-Shuhood” test to ascertain the standard of credibility of the witnesses, since the offence with which the petitioner was charged clearly fell within the definition of a hadd.
The matter has now been referred back to the chief justice, who is expected to constitute a fresh bench to hear the appeal.
Published in Dawn, October 14th, 2016