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Christian mother gets final appeal of death sentence

LAHORE, Pakistan (BP) — A Pakistani Christian mother will get her final court appeal Oct. 13 to avoid execution on a charge of blasphemy by Muslim women who objected to her drinking from a shared cup at a water well.

Pakistani’s supreme court has announced it will hear the case of 51-year-old Aasiya Noreen, also known as Asia Bibi, whose execution had been temporarily suspended in July 2015, The Independent of London reported. Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 on charges of insulting the prophet Mohammad while working in a field as a day laborer in 2009, and the Lahore High Court upheld her conviction four years later.

Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer, considered the top Pakistani advocate for Bibi’s release, was assassinated in 2011 as revenge for his advocacy. Bibi has been kept under heightened security since the February execution of Taseer’s assassin Mumtaz Qadri, according to Morning Star News. And Qadri’s supporters and other Islamist groups have reportedly conspired to have Bibi murdered in prison.

A senior government official told Morning Star News anonymously that there is a bounty on Bibi’s head of 50 million rupees ($471,000) and that Islamist groups were calling for her “swift execution.”

“The government is doing its best to keep Noreen safe,” Morning Star quoted the official. “Only her husband is allowed to meet her in jail, and she has been told to cook her own food to prevent any attempt at poisoning her meals. All guards deployed for her security have been carefully vetted by intelligence agencies and other security outfits to ensure that they are not extremists in their belief.”

Christian rights activist Napolean Qayyum told Morning Star he wouldn’t be surprised if members of the Movement for the Finality of the Prophethood (Tehreek–e–Khatam–e-Nabuvat), an alliance of lawyers advocating execution for blasphemy, interrupted court proceedings during the appeal.

“Fear and intimidation [are] the extremists’ greatest weapon, and they might use such tactics to intimidate the judges and pressure them into upholding Noreen’s execution,” Morning Star quoted Qayyum. “We just hope that the government and the court do not cower under Islamists’ pressure. Noreen has been suffering in jail for nearly six years; it’s about time that she is judged fairly by the court.”

If her appeal fails, Bibi’s last hope would be a pardon from Pakistani president Mamnoon Hussain. Bibi would be the first person to be hanged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, The Telegraph reported. Still, 20 people charged with blasphemy in Pakistan have been murdered outside the justice system, The Telegraph said, by vigilantes including prison guards. Others have gone into hiding.

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which has collected nearly 480,000 signatures on a petition calling for Bibi’s release, estimated many more than 20 — in fact hundreds — charged with blasphemy “have been killed extra-judicially by either violent mobs or drive-by shootings even after having been acquitted by the courts.” The ACLJ requested prayer for a favorable outcome.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Bibi’s lawyer Saif-ul Mulook said his client never received a fair trial and that the charges against her were based on a “personal vendetta.” Bibi’s husband Ashiq Mashih and their five children have lived in hiding since she was sentenced to death, and police are guarding Mulook’s home in Lahore due to threats against his life, The Telegraph reported.

Her husband has expressed hope for her acquittal.

“I have great hopes in the supreme court and I am very hopeful that justice will [be] done for my wife,” The Telegraph quoted Mashih, who was said to be speaking from an undisclosed location Oct. 7. “She has been living a miserable life in jail for many years. I want justice for the mother of my five children. … The complainant and witnesses were biased and the complaint was registered on personal motives.”

While working in a berry field 60 miles west of Lahore, Bibi’s coworkers objected to her drinking from a nearby water well because they considered her unclean because of her Christianity. Following a quarrel, she was beaten and arrested for refusing to convert to Islam. Bibi’s family were the only Christians in her rural village, The Telegraph said, and seven of those who testified against her were not present at the scene of the supposed crime.