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Long wait on death row for Aasia Bibi as...

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Long wait on death row for Aasia Bibi as appeal stalls

Country/Region: Pakistan, South and East Asia

Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother who is on death row in Pakistan falsely accused of blasphemy, may be left languishing in jail for years awaiting an appeal of her case.

asia_bibi_4X3.jpg
Aasia Bibi

She has already been behind bars for over two years since she was accused of making derogatory remarks about Muhammad in June 2009. Aasia was sentenced to death last November in a highly controversial case that threw an international spotlight on Pakistan’s "blasphemy laws", which are frequently used against Christians and other non-Muslims.

An appeal was lodged before the Lahore High Court, and Aasia was expected to be executed in November if it failed. But now lawyers associated with the case have indicated that the hearing is unlikely to be held any time soon for a host of reasons.

There is a five-year backlog of cases; the Lahore High Court is only now hearing review petitions filed in 2006-2007. Although the chief justice has the authority to bring forward a priority hearing, a lawyer in Lahore, who filed Aasia’s review petition, said this did not appear to be happening in her case.

Islamist pressure

This has arguably been the most controversial case in the country’s recent legal history, and there is likely to be considerable pressure on the court when the appeal is heard. Aasia’s plight prompted calls for amendments to the blasphemy laws, and the Pakistan Government initially made noises about a review. But it was forced to retreat by an aggressive Islamist backlash. There were widespread public protests, and two high-profile politicians, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Government Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who defended Aasia and called for reform, were shot dead by militants.

The court may therefore want to hold off hearing the case until the furore over it has died down.

Then there is the question of who would be willing to defend Aasia in court given that her other advocates have been murdered. The lawyer who filed the review petition is unsure whether or not he would be able to pursue the case. He said that the assassinations of Governor Taseer and Mr Bhatti frightened all those who initially supported Aasia; they fear that even speaking in her favour would put their own lives at risk.

Under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, "defiling the name of Muhammad" carries a mandatory death sentence, though no-one has yet been executed for the offence; most of those convicted of blasphemy have their sentences overturned or reduced on appeal, when it eventually comes to court. But, since 1990, at least ten Pakistanis accused of blasphemy have been killed by zealous Muslims while their cases were being considered.

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