A special three-member bench of the Supreme Court on Monday reserved its judgement on the final appeal against the execution of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy.
Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel were hearing Bibi's 2014 appeal against the capital punishment handed to her.
While reserving its verdict on the appeal, the chief justice warned media against commenting on or discussing the case until the apex court's detailed judgement has been issued.
No date has been announced by the court for when the verdict will be announced.
Allegations against Aasia Bibi
Aasia Bibi was convicted for blasphemy under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code for allegedly defaming Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). The offence carries the mandatory death penalty under Pakistani law.
The allegations against Bibi are that she made three “defamatory and sarcastic” statements about the Holy Prophet on June 14, 2009 during an argument with three Muslim women while the four of them were picking fruit in a field.
The prosecution had claimed that Bibi “admitted” making these statements at a “public gathering” on June 19, 2009 "while asking for forgiveness".
A trial court had convicted Bibi for blasphemy in November 2010 and sentenced her to death. The Lahore High Court (LHC) had upheld her conviction and confirmed her death sentence in October 2014.
The Supreme Court had admitted her appeal for hearing in July 2015.
Lawyer says witnesses lied in statements
Bibi's lawyer, Saiful Mulook, today questioned why the June 14, 2009 incident had been reported on June 19.
He also recalled that a case was filed against Bibi by a prayer leader in the village of Katanwala in Nankana Sahib, according to which Aasia Bibi had confessed to committing blasphemy.
"Are these things on the record?" the chief justice asked the counsel.
"What we can conclude from your statements is that the prayer leader himself did not witness the incident as it happened," Justice Khosa observed during the hearing. "No blasphemous language was uttered in the presence of the prayer leader."
The lawyer also said that, "No permission to file the FIR was taken from the district coordination officer or the district police officer."
Aasia Bibi and the two Muslim women had had a heated exchange when the argument broke out, the lawyer told the court. The reason behind it was that the women had refused to drink water from the same bowl as Aasia.
The statements of the Muslim women, Asma and Isma, were found to be contradictory, the lawyer pointed out.
At this, the CJP asked the lawyer why he had not given arguments regarding the contradictions when the case was being heard by lower courts.
Justice Nisar also observed that the witnesses had not testified to Bibi disrespecting the Holy Prophet, but instead had described the incident that had taken place in the agricultural field.
The lawyer recalled that, according to a witness statement, the owner of the land where the incident took place had also claimed to be present when Aasia 'confessed'.
"All the witnesses were trying their best to ensure Aasia does not get away," he added.
The investigation was faulty and grounded in malicious intent. In such a situation, Section 295-C is inapplicable, the lawyer argued.
The CJP also wondered whether the assistant superintendent police's probe into the matter could be relied upon, to which the lawyer replied that police had wrongfully registered the case.
"The witness testimonies did not state that she had used blasphemous language for the Holy Quran," he said. "No blasphemous words were used at all. Aasia, in her statement, said that she could not even conceive of committing blasphemy," Saiful Mulook stated for the court.
He added that she respects Islamic education and the Holy Prophet "with all her heart".
"She simply had an argument with two women. During that argument, they exchanged harsh words," the lawyer said.
"What kind of incident is this? That you were argued with, harsh words were used for you, and then the case was also filed against you?" the CJP wondered.
"Are you suggesting that it is possible that the person who filed the case — the prayer leader — is acting on someone else's behest?" Justice Khosa asked. "That he is a frontman and someone else is behind him?"
"It is possible that this is the case," the lawyer said. He went on to reiterate that the witnesses were "lying".
The lawyer also informed the bench that Bibi, who is an illiterate woman, was referred to as a Christian preacher in the FIR, when she cannot be considered so.
"This reflects ill-intention [on the part of the complainant]," he added.
Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, the lawyer representing complainant Qari Islam, argued that Bibi had used blasphemous words regarding the Prophet.
"These [blasphemous statements] are the same words that Christians [who resort to blasphemous acts] usually use," he said.
Chaudhry also asked why the appeal against the trial court's verdict was filed after a delay of 11 days. He also claimed that neither the incident [during which the alleged blasphemous remarks were uttered] nor the presence of the accused and the witnesses was denied in that appeal.
"The accused has confessed to her crime," he further stated.
However, Justice Khosa remarked that it was possible that the blasphemous words that Bibi was accused of uttering were actually made by the lawyer who drafted the complaint against her.
Justice Khosa then repeated his observation that the imam of the mosque had not been a direct witness to the incident.
"[However,] he [the imam] later became a crusader [seeking justice]," he said, noting that a mosque imam's word would be generally respected by locals due to social conventions.
Justice Khosa also wondered why each witness had given a different statement on the panchayat.
"The reverence for the Prophet (PBUH) is part of our faith," the judge remarked, asking the complainant's lawyer to support his arguments with evidence.
"It hurts the entire nation when an accused is acquitted due to technicalities," he said, ostensibly pointing at the weaknesses in the evidence brought forth.
Justice Khosa also took notice of two of the prosecution witnesses' statements, which alleged that Bibi had uttered the blasphemous remarks after her own religion was attacked.
"You cannot attack another person's religion. God has forbidden insulting others' religion or their gods," he noted.
"Our own faith [as Muslims] is not complete without a declaration of faith in all messengers [of God] and all the divine books," he further noted.
"There is a lot of contradiction between statements given by the people [involved in this case]," the CJP concurred.
"Blasphemy is a heinous crime," he observed. "[But] it remains to be seen whether the allegations [against Bibi] were proven."
The judge directed the complainant's lawyer to present evidence based on testimonies. "A lot is being done to defame Islam," the chief justice said, "[And it seems that] all this is being done to incite us."
Aasia Bibi's case
The allegations against Aasia Bibi date back to June 2009, when she was labouring in a field and a row broke out with some Muslim women she was working with.
She was asked to fetch water, but the Muslim women objected, saying that as a non-Muslim she was unfit to touch the water bowl.
The women later went to a local cleric and accused Bibi of blasphemy against the Holy Prophet, a charge punishable by death under legislation that rights groups say is routinely abused to settle personal vendettas.
In 2011, former Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who spoke out in support of Bibi, was gunned down in broad daylight in Islamabad. His assassin Mumtaz Qadri was executed in 2016 after the court found him guilty of murder.
Bibi's supporters maintain her innocence and insist it was a personal dispute, and the Vatican has called for her release.
The top court had last taken up the appeal in October 2016, but had to adjourn the matter without hearing after one of the judges recused himself from the SC bench.
Successive appeals had been rejected.
If the bench eventually upholds Bibi's conviction, her only recourse will be a direct appeal to the president for clemency.
If that fails, she could become the first person in Pakistan to be executed for blasphemy.