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Pakistan Delays 2010 Death Row Blasphemy Appeal


We have an update this morning on the story of a Christian woman who's been on death row in Pakistan for six years. Asia Bibi is her name. She was sentenced to hang after being convicted under that country's blasphemy laws. Human rights groups and Christian leaders around the world have called for her freedom. And today, her appeal was scheduled at Pakistan's Supreme Court. NPR's Philip Reeves is in Islamabad to tell us what happened instead.

Hi, Phil.


INSKEEP: This case has been going on for so long, I think you need to remind us of the basics.

REEVES: Yes. Asia Bibi used to work on a farm. And about seven years ago, she got into an argument with some of the Muslim women she worked with over a cup of water. And that led to allegations that she had blasphemed the Prophet Muhammad.

Now since then, the case has become absolutely notorious, not least because there've concerns by international human rights groups for ages about these blasphemy laws being used, for example, to pursue personal vendettas or indeed to persecute religious minorities.

INSKEEP: Which, in fact, is the allegation of what happened to Asia Bibi, some kind of personal vendetta. So what happened in court today, now that her case has reached Pakistan's highest court?

REEVES: Well, everybody showed up. The police were there with riot shields. The intelligence services were there around the court. And we were hoping there would perhaps be some sort of verdict. But in the end, the hearing was adjourned on a legal technicality.

INSKEEP: So there's a delay here. How are people responding to that?

REEVES: Well, you know, there's huge interest in this case, especially internationally where Asia Bibi enjoys considerable support from all sorts of people including the Vatican. But here in the overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan, although she has some supporters here too, it's important to note that she actually has great deal of opposition to her and to the possibility of her release. Shortly before today's hearing, 150 hardline Muslim clerics put out a statement saying that she should be hanged and if she is released today, that they said they would take to the streets and protest.

Threats like that are taken very seriously. Remember, it isn't all that long ago since a provincial governor who spoke out in favor of Asia Bibi and against the blasphemy laws was assassinated by his own bodyguard. That assassin was later celebrated as a hero for his actions. And when he was eventually hanged, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to mourn his death.

INSKEEP: OK. So this case is delayed and she remains on death row. What about her family?

REEVES: Her family has been in hiding and is in hiding. She's in her 50s, she has five kids. And the family has a spokesman, a guy called Joseph Nadeem, who's from a Christian charity that's been supporting the family. NPR reached him on Skype before today's hearing, just to ask how the family are doing.

JOSEPH NADEEM: The children are suffering, she is suffering, the husband is suffering due to the blasphemy case.

INSKEEP: So what happens now, Phil?

REEVES: Well, no new date's been set for the next hearing by the Supreme Court of Asia Bibi's appeal. But speaking after today's adjournment, Asia Bibi's lawyer, Saif ul Malook, seemed confident that she will win in the end.

SAIF UL MALOOK: I think we have a good full proof case. And we are raising certain fundamental legal issues regarding the Islamic law of evidence and some other grounds. And we are sure that we'll be able to get a verdict in our favor.

INSKEEP: If the court ever does rule, could this case overturn Pakistan's blasphemy law?

REEVES: Yeah, I think it's extremely unlikely because of the strength of support for the blasphemy laws here. For many devout Muslims, leaving aside the abuse of the law that occurs quite regularly, this is a matter of their faith. They firmly support this law with a passion.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves is in Islamabad. Philip, thanks.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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