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ISLAMABAD: After hours long hearing, the Supreme Court on Monday reserved its ruling on a 2014 appeal filed by Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman condemned to death on blasphemy charges, but restrained both electronic and print media from discussing or commenting on the matter till the final judgement.

A three-judge SC bench, headed by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel, reserved the ruling. The hearing in Courtroom No 1 was also witnessed by the international media and representatives of some NGOs.

On July 22, 2015, a three-judge SC bench, also headed by Justice Saqib Nisar, had suspended the Lahore High Court’s October 2014 verdict of upholding the trial court’s November 2010 decision of sentencing Aasia Bibi to death for committing blasphemy during an argument with a Muslim woman in Sheikhupura in June 2009.

During the proceedings on Monday, the prosecution side, represented by Additional Prosecutor for Punjab Chaudhry Zubair, and Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry from the complainant side supported each other by arguing that the accused had not denied committing blasphemy or presence of the accused as well as the witnesses at the place of occurrence. Besides, they said, the allegation of quarrel before the incident in which Aasia Bibi was first insulted for being a Christian had also not been proved.

Moreover, there was no instance of ill will or mala fide on the part of the prosecution against the woman, the complainant’s counsel argued.

But Advocate Saiful Malook, appearing on behalf of Aasia Bibi, argued that the prosecution’s case was replete with infirmities and subsequent improvements and, therefore, the benefit of the doubt should be given to the accused and the entire investigation be also declared illegal and unwarranted.

Justice Khosa observed that the Holy Quran ordained to tell the truth even if it went against “yourself or your kith and kin”. This Holy Scripture has even been inscribed prominently at the gates of the Harvard Law School, USA, he observed and then went on to cite Surah Al-Inam from the Holy Quran which asks “not to insult others deities lest they insult your deity by ignorance”.

The chief justice observed that committing blasphemy was the most appalling and spiteful offence, and not only “our laws but the fundamentals of our religion also place strict standards of proof to prove the crime”.

When the complainant’s lawyer argued that the appeal was barred by an 11-day delay, Justice Khosa observed that the court could not decide on technicalities to let the accused in the death cell be hanged merely because his or her appeal was barred by 11 days. “The Supreme Court is always lenient with people lying in jails,” he emphasised.

Defending the accused, Mr Malook said the FIR was registered after a delay of five days on June 19, 2009, whereas the alleged incident took place on June 14. He argued that in criminal cases investigations were carried out before registration of the case.

At this, the chief justice observed that the delay could be attributed to extreme caution not to act irresponsibly and properly investigate the matter first.

The counsel said it was also not certain in the case that the FIR was registered at a bridge over a canal outside the police station, adding that the investigation was carried out by a sub-inspector when it should have been done by an officer not below the rank of superintendent police who was later entrusted the inquiry on June 27, but he summoned the witnesses in his office on June 24.

Moreover, he said, the FIR was registered by Qari Salam, a prayer leader who was also an educated person of the local village in tehsil Nankana Sahib, but he forgot the name of the lawyer who drafted the FIR. Besides, the lawyer was also not produced before the trial court, thus withholding the best witness, he contended.

At this, Justice Khosa observed that maybe the prayer leader was being used by someone else by putting him as a front man.

Mr Malook said the witness sisters — Afia Bibi and Asma Bibi — in their testimonies suppressed the fact about a quarrel between them when Aasia Bibi was asked to fetch a glass of water but later told that they would not accept the water from the hands of a Christian woman and then insulted her. Moreover, he said, there were other 20 to 25 women working in the same field along with the accused and the witness sisters, but none of them had been produced before the trial court as witnesses.

Justice Khosa, however, observed that the appellant (Saiful Malook) had not suggested any animosity as a result of which the witness sisters would get Aasia Bibi hanged by levelling allegations of blasphemy knowing about the drastic consequences.

The counsel said the motive in the FIR against the accused was set up as a preacher of Christianity, but it was later withdrawn since Aasia was uneducated and belonged to a poor family. Moreover, he added, the names of at least three or four witnesses had been suggested and some of them stated that the accused lived next to the place where the gathering took place before the registration of the case, while others said she was brought on a motorcycle to the place where she admitted the offence and then sought pardon. Some said she was brought from 250 metres away.

On the other hand, Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry said the accused had uttered the same derogatory remarks as were part of the well thought out conspiracy devised in Spain many centuries ago.

Justice Khosa, however, reminded the counsel not to forget that the complaint was drafted by a lawyer who knew which words had significance.

The complainant’s counsel also argued that the accused had admitted everything and even sought pardon, adding that during the entire incident the accused was never harmed. The people of the village remained peaceful, he said.

He contended that all the witnesses before the trial court were independent and natural witnesses, adding that the corroboration of the evidence was cogent and convincing.

Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2018