Pakistan delays ruling on blasphemy death sentence case

FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2016, file photo, supporters of a Pakistani religious group shout slogans demanding hanging of a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi in Lahore, Pakistan. Pakistans Supreme Court is set to hear the final appeal of the Christian on deaThe Associated Press
FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2016, file photo, supporters of a Pakistani religious group shout slogans demanding hanging of a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi in Lahore, Pakistan. Pakistan's Supreme Court is set to hear the final appeal of the Christian on death row since 2010 accused of insulting Islam's prophet, a crime that incites mobs to kill and carries an automatic death penalty. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary, File)

Pakistan's Supreme Court postponed its ruling Monday on the final appeal of a Christian woman who has been on death row since 2010 after being convicted of blasphemy against Islam.

The judicial panel listened to Asia Bibi's defense lawyer challenge statements by those who accused her of insulting Islam's prophet, an allegation punishable by death that can incite riots in conservative Pakistan.

The three-judge panel, headed by Pakistan's Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, did not say why they reserved their judgment or when they would announce their decision. It ordered everyone present to refrain from commenting on the case, in an apparent attempt to avoid inflaming public opinion.

The charge against Bibi dates back to a hot day in 2009 when she went to get water for her and her fellow farmworkers. Two Muslim women refused to take a drink from a container used by a Christian. A few days later, a mob accused her of blasphemy. She was convicted and sentenced to death.

Bibi's lawyer, Saiful Malook, argued that the many contradictions in witnesses' statements tainted the evidence. The two Muslim women who leveled the charges against Bibi denied they were quarrelling with her, saying her outbursts against Islam were unprovoked. Yet several independent witnesses who gave statements recounted a cantankerous exchange between the women.

The prosecution's case centered mostly on religious texts that vilify those who make blasphemous statements.

Ahead of the hearing, Malook expressed optimism that he would win the last legal appeal for Bibi. But if not, he planned to seek a review, which could take years to complete.

"I am a 100 percent sure she will be acquitted," Malook told The Associated Press in a telephone interview on the eve of the hearing. "She has a very good case."

He refused to comment at the end of Monday's hearing, citing the judges' orders.

Bibi's case has generated international outrage, but within Pakistan it has fired up radical Islamists, who use the blasphemy law to rally supporters and intimidate mainstream political parties.

Even defending Bibi in court is dangerous.

"I have lost my health. I am a high blood pressure patient, my privacy is totally lost. You have to be in hiding," her lawyer said ahead of the hearing. Everyone on his tree-lined street knows his identity, he said. "They look at this house and they know this is the home of a person who can be killed at any time by angry mullahs."

Police provide round-the-clock security around Malook's home, in the city of Lahore.

Members of Pakistan's religious minorities have campaigned against the law, which they say is invoked to justify attacks on them. For them, Bibi's case is seen as a watershed. Her husband recently traveled to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis.

Joseph Francis, an activist for Pakistan's Christians, said he currently is aiding 120 Christians facing blasphemy charges. His organization, Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, provides legal aid as well as finding a safe haven for Christians who are targeted even after being cleared of blasphemy allegations.

"This law is misused and it is not only misused against Christians but also against Muslims," he said.

France, Spain and Germany have all offered to welcome Bibi should she be acquitted, said Francis, who said he will help secret her out of the country.

But Khadim Hussein Rizvi, the leader of a radical Islamist party, warned after the postponement that "no blasphemer will be able to escape punishment.

In 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was shot and killed by one of his elite guards for defending Bibi and criticizing misuse of the blasphemy law. Malook prosecuted his killer, Mumtaz Qadri, who was hanged for his crime.

Qadri has since become a martyr to millions, who make a pilgrimage to a shrine erected in his name by his family outside the capital, Islamabad. His supporters have called for the immediate killing of anyone accused of blasphemy.

Pakistan's newly elected government is led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, a former cricket star who has embraced religious conservatism and bowed to some of the demands of radical Islamists. Last month, a member of his government offered prayers at Qadri's shrine, drawing outrage from rights activists.

An unprecedented number of religious parties participated in the July elections that put Khan in power. As in previous elections, they garnered less than 10 percent of the popular vote, but they have allies among all the major parties.

According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, 71 countries have blasphemy laws — around a quarter of them are in the Middle East and North Africa and around a fifth are European countries, though enforcement and punishment varies.

Pakistan is one of the most ferocious enforcers.

At least 1,472 people were charged under Pakistan's blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2016, according to statistics collected by the Center for Social Justice, a Lahore-based group. Of those, 730 were Muslims, 501 were Ahmadis — a sect reviled by mainstream Muslims as heretical — while 205 were Christians and 26 were Hindus. The center said it didn't know the religion of the final 10 because they were killed by vigilantes before they could get their day in court.

While Pakistan's law carries the death penalty for blasphemy and offenders have been sentenced to death, so far no one has ever been executed.

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Associated Press writer Munir Ahmed contributed to this report

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