The first hearing of the appeal for Asia Bibi, the Pakistani woman under sentence of death for blasphemy, has again been postponed. This time her accuser 'the counterpart' did not appear in the courtroom.
"The judges were calm and wanted to examine the case. The Court will not tolerate such strategies", Asia’s defense lawyers said. "We have solid arguments and we are ready to present them. We remain very confident, from a legal point of view", the lawyers explain. "The fears are all on the other side".
The 'counterpart' is the Muslim Mullah Qari Muhammad Sallam, the man who on June 19, 2009 submitted complaint no. 326/2009 to the police station in the town of Nankana Sahib, accusing Bibi of blasphemy, according to Article 295c of the Penal Code.
After investigation, the police submitted its report on July 12 and the case went to trial in the court of first instance in Nankana Sahib, before judge Naveed Iqbal.The facts that Asia are accused of took place on 14 June 2009. The defense lawyers in the appeal aim to prove this five-day gap between when the episode happened and when the complaint was submitted in order to show that the allegations are completely false.
Asia was sentenced to death on November 8, 2010 by the court of first instance. Appeal no. 2509 was filed before the Lahore High Court on November 11, 2010. But, for reasons of expediency, context, religious and political pressures, only now the Court, four years later, has taken the case into consideration.
Asia Bibi is a 43 year old Catholic woman from a rural area in the Punjub. She cannot read or write. She worked as a farmhand before she met her husband, a bricklayer who had three children from an earlier marriage. They had two more children together. They were the only Christians in the village. Before her incarceration, Asia had been repeatedly urged by her fellow workers to convert to Islam.
In June 2009, Noreen was harvesting berries with a group of other farmhands when she was asked to fetch water from a nearby well. She complied but stopped to take a drink with an old metal cup she had found lying next to the well.A neighbour saw her and told her it was forbidden for a Christian to drink the same water as a Muslim. Later, some of the workers complained to a cleric that Noreen had insulted Muhammad. A mob came to her house, beating her and members of her family before she was rescued by the police. The police initiated an investigation about her remarks, resulting in her arrest under Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code. She subsequently was imprisoned for over a year before being formally charged. In November 2010, a Sheikhupura judge sentenced her to death.
The verdict, which was reached in a district court and would need to be upheld by a superior court, has received worldwide attention. Various petitions, including one that received 400,000 signatures, were organized to protest Noreen's imprisonment, and Pope Benedict XVI publicly called for the charges against her to be dismissed. She received less sympathy from her neighbours and Islamic religious leaders in the country, some of whom adamantly called for her to be executed. Christian minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti and Pakistani government politician Salmaan Taseer were both killed for advocating on her behalf and opposing the blasphemy laws. Asia's family has gone into hiding due to receiving death threats and has voiced concerns that she could be killed by extremists if released from prison.