THE charity Release International has questioned the decision of the Supreme Court in Pakistan to adjourn the final appeal of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who has been on death row since 2009, accused of blasphemy.
Mrs Bibi, a farm labourer, was the first woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad — which she denies — after an argument with her Muslim co-workers (News, 19 November 2010). The labourers reportedly refused to drink the water she had brought for them because they considered her, as a Christian, to be unclean.
The Supreme Court was due to hear her final appeal this month (News, 30 September). But one of the judges stepped down last week, citing a possible conflict of interest. A new date for the hearing has not yet been set.
Judge Iqbal Hameed ur Rehman reportedly told the court that he had been involved in the case of Salmaan Taseer, a liberal governor of Punjab province, who was murdered by his bodyguard in Islamabad in 2011 after publicly supporting Mrs Bibi (Comment, Press, 14 January 2011).
“It seems strange to pull out on the day of the appeal,” the chief executive of Release International, Paul Robinson, said. “Surely any potential conflict of interest would have been known in advance?” The charity, which is pressing for Mrs Bibi’s acquittal, has condemned Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which, it says, have resulted in the death of 60 people since 1990.
Riots broke out across the capital of Islamabad in response to the adjournment, and about 3000 security personnel were called in to protect the court last week. “What is clear is that it will take immense courage to withstand intimidation and release Asia Bibi,” Mr Robinson said. “The blasphemy laws are being used to fuel the flames of intolerance. That’s why they must be repealed.”
Zohra Yusuf, who chairs the independent Human Rights Commission in Pakistan, told the news agency AFP that the delay was “regrettable”, and suggested that the judges had realised that they “may be putting their own lives on the line” if they acquitted Mrs Bibi.
Assassination threats have been made against Mrs Bibi, and her family have been forced into hiding.