(CNSNews.com) – Pakistan’s Supreme Court judges are facing threats from Muslim hardliners as they mull when to announce their verdict in one of the most notorious cases of abuse of the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.
Radicals were planning protests on Friday to back their demands that the court not throw out on appeal the conviction handed down in 2010 on Asia Bibi (Aasiya Noreen), the first Christian woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy.
The case of the farm laborer and mother of five, whom accusers claim insulted Mohammed, has drawn concern around the world.
The Supreme Court earlier this week said it had reached a decision in her appeal, but declined to announce it immediately.
Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), an Islamic party established in 2015 by a hardline cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, held a press conference on Wednesday warning the judges of any concessions in the case, and threatening “terrible consequences” should attempts to made to hand Bibi over to a foreign country.
The TLP, whose main campaign plank revolved around punishment for blasphemers, fared unexpectedly well in its first national elections in July, becoming the fifth-largest party and winning its first seats in one of the provincial legislatures.
Most of its supporters are members of the Barelvi movement of Sunni Islam, known for its zeal for Mohammed, the Qur’an and shari’a.
“The court did not provide any date when the verdict will be announced,” said the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which has long advocated for Bibi’s freedom.
“Given the religiously-charged atmosphere of the country regarding blasphemy cases, it is understandable that the court would avoid announcing its decision yesterday, especially if it is in Asia Bibi’s favor.”
The ACLJ said if the Supreme Court does uphold the conviction, Bibi’s only recourse would be to petition Pakistan’s president for clemency.
‘Love of the prophet’
Pakistan’s penal code carries the death penalty for insulting Mohammed (section 295-C); life imprisonment for defiling the Qur’an (section 295-B); and shorter jail terms for vilifying any of Mohammed’s dozen wives, relatives or “companions” (section 298-A).
Religious freedom campaigners say Christians, Ahmadis and other minorities have been disproportionately targeted under the blasphemy laws.
People accused of blasphemy have frequently been attacked by mobs, with vigilantes claiming to be protecting the “honor” of the prophet taking the law into their own hands – with often fatal results.
Lawyers for blasphemy accused have been threatened and gone into hiding, and in 1997 a High Court judge in Lahore was shot dead in his chambers after acquitting a man who had been convicted in a lower court of blasphemy.
Asia Bibi was working with Muslim women in a berry field in 2009 when she reportedly had a drink from a communal well during a rest break, upsetting co-workers who accused the non-Muslim of defiling the water or a shared cup.
Anne-Isabelle Tollet, a French journalist who worked with her in prison on a book, quoted Bibi as having responded that she did not believe Mohammed would share such a view.
The Muslims then complained to a cleric, accusing her of blaspheming Islam’s prophet. She was arrested, tried and convicted under section 295-C. In November 2010, Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging.
On Twitter this week the hashtag “#PunishAsiaUnder_295c” has been widely used by Pakistanis calling for her execution.
In 2011, the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer – a liberal Muslim – was assassinated by a bodyguard after speaking out in support of Bibi.
The Barelvi bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, fired at least 27 bullets into Taseer, then told police he did so because of the governor’s opposition to the blasphemy law.
Following the killing hundreds of Muslim scholars issued a statement giving Qadri the honorary appellation “Lover of the Prophet,” and warned all clerics in Pakistan not to express sympathy for Taseer’s death or to participate in his funeral.
As Qadri went on trial, hailed as a hero by Barelvis, another outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws, federal minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti – a Christian – was shot dead by gunmen who left pamphlets at the scene, accusing him of blasphemy.
Qadri was convicted, sentenced, and hanged in February 2016.
‘We will die to protect the honor of the prophet’
The TLP emerged largely out of sentiment reacting to Qadri’s death sentence and a determination to protect the blasphemy laws against any attempt to amend or repeal them.
Almost a year ago, hardliners led by TLP leader Rizvi held a 21-day sit-in at a major thoroughfare near Islamabad, calling for the execution of Bibi and protesting a proposed election law change which they saw as an insult to Islam.
(Election candidates had been required to affirm their belief in the “finality of the prophethood of Mohammed” and it was proposed that the wording of an oath be changed from “I solemnly swear” to “I believe.” The move was reversed, but the Barelvis refused to end the sit-in until they minister they held responsible resigned – which he did.)
“We will die to protect the honor of the prophet,” the protestors chanted, along with other slogans.
The government drew criticism for conceding to some of the hardliners’ demands, although there was no confirmation of a claim, by Rizvi, that the capitulation had included an undertaking that Bibi would not be released or allowed to leave Pakistan.
Despite Pakistan’s record of religious freedom violations, it has been a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council for almost the entirety of that body’s 13-year existence, serving terms in 2006-2008, 2009-2011, 2013-2015 and now in 2018-2020.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent watchdog that advises the federal government on religious freedom, has called every year since 2002 for the State Department to designate Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for egregious religious freedom violations.
The State Department each year overruled the recommendation.
Last January the Trump administration for the first time placed Pakistan on a “special watch list” for religious freedom violations, but stopped short of CPC designation, which can lead to punitive measures including sanctions.
Almost 800,000 people have signed an ACLJ petition to the Pakistani government, calling for her freedom.