Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi has been allowed to take her appeal against her death penalty for blasphemy to Pakistan's Supreme Court. Which means that, until the Supreme Court reaches its final decision, Asia cannot be executed.
Commentators praised the Supreme Court for its courage to hear the appeal in the face of strong public sentiment against anyone seen to denigrate Islam, with some calling it a 'historic day for Pakistan'.
However, for all the good news, Asia remains in prison. And she is reportedly extremely ill. She is suffering from internal bleeding and needs urgent medical care. Her family announced that Asia was 'so weak she can hardly walk' after their latest monthly visit.
Her lawyer, Saiful Malook, appeared in front of three Supreme Court judges, on 22 July, in Lahore. While her previous appeal at the High Court in Lahore was rejected, the judges conceded that they had based their ruling on a technicality, which they recommended be eliminated in future to make it more difficult to achieve blasphemy convictions.
The appeal judges have therefore asked lawmakers to craft legislation that would empower trial courts to apply a test that would make future blasphemy convictions much more difficult to achieve. That test was not in place when Asia was tried.
In a statement, the Chairman of the National Council of Churches in Pakistan, Rt Rev Bishop Azad Marshall and Secretary General Mr Victor Azariah said: "This order of the Supreme Court has paved the way for her possible complete acquittal. Now she could be released on bail, but due to the sensitivity of the issue it was advised that she should remain in jail for security reasons and wait for the final judgment of the Supreme Court."
However, a lawyer who did not wish to be named told an Open Doors contact: "I think Asia is more at risk that ever. This has paved the way equally to rile up the extremists and create an urgency to destroy her and raise the profile of their cause: the removal of minorities from Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is just a stay. Don't get to excited. Asia is not free till she is free. This can drag on another 20 years."
Another, another Christian woman responded: "Our God is bigger than any of these fears. In Jesus name we will see victory for the Church and the enemy's plan will be thwarted."
Asia's case has attracted worldwide attention and led to much criticism of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws. She was arrested in 2009 after allegedly making derogatory comments about the Prophet Mohammad during an argument with a Muslim woman. The Muslim woman had refused water from Asia, a colleague, on the grounds that it was 'unclean' because it had been handled by a Christian.
When the case came to court, in November 2010, the Muslim woman and her sister were the only two witnesses, but the defence failed to convince judges that their evidence lacked credibility.
Asia was found guilty, becoming the first woman to be sentenced to death under Article 295C of Pakistan's penal code, which imposes death sentences for offences of defamation against Mohammad.
Since that time she has been confined to prison, mostly in the high-security District Jail Sheikhupura, 22 miles north-west of Lahore, and now in the women's jail in Multan.
In the High Court appeal hearing in October 2014, Asia's lawyer, Naeem Shakir, had argued that the main complainant in the case, the local Muslim cleric Mohamed Salaam, had not heard Asia blaspheme, and that his original complaint, known as a first information report (FIR), had been lodged only five days after the women's quarrel. Her other main accuser, the owner of the field in which she worked, Mohamed Imran, had not been present at the time of the quarrel either; he was away from the village at the time.
In 2011, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of the Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, national minorities' minister, were shot dead because of their support for Asia and criticism of what one observer called 'Pakistan's barbaric blasphemy laws'.
Fifteen Pakistani Christians are currently believed to be facing the death penalty for blasphemy, including Sawan Masih, whose alleged blasphemy during a conversation with a Muslim friend in March 2013 resulted in the looting and torching of hundreds of homes within the predominantly Christian Joseph Colony in which he lived.
The case has led to widespread and high-profile condemnation of Pakistan's blasphemy laws. In April, Asia's family met Pope Francis at the Vatican, where he prayed for her and for all suffering Christians.
In March, she was made an honorary citizen of Paris in a show of support by the city's mayor, Anne Hidalgo.
To date, more than 600,000 people have added their signatures to a campaign by change.org. The woman who started the campaign, Emily Clarke, said: "People have not forgotten Asia Bibi even though she was sentenced to death over five years ago".
Source: World Watch Monitor
- For strength and comfort for Asia and her family
- For protection and wisdom for her legal team
- For justice and mercy to be shown to Asia
- For a change to the blasphemy laws in Pakistan which are frequently abused.