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‘Security’ only reason for Asia Bibi verdict delay

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (BP) — Security is the only reason Pakistan’s Supreme Court is delaying its ruling in an Oct. 8 appeal of Christian mother Asia Bibi’s blasphemy conviction, a religious liberty expert told Baptist Press.

“There’s only one reason, security,” said Shaheryar Gill, senior litigation counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). “Generally the Supreme Court announces decisions the same day. In politically high-profile cases, or in these type security cases, these are the only times when the court doesn’t announce.

“And they don’t even take that long actually, but this time it seems like they’re taking a little bit longer,” said Gill, who checks the court’s website daily for updates and is in touch with the ACLJ’s office in Pakistan.

“If she’s acquitted she is obviously going to need a lot of security…, security provided by the government,” Gill told BP today (Oct. 23). “And she cannot be released openly. If she is, there’s no doubt, no question about it, that her life will be in jeopardy. They feel proud of killing somebody like this.”

The Supreme Court of Pakistan heard hours of testimony before deferring a ruling in the case, with no official timeline set for a decision.

Bibi, a 53-year-old mother of five, 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. When Bibi offered a coworker a cup of water, the woman said Bibi’s Christianity made the water ceremonially unclean, setting off a chain of false accusations related to Bibi’s beliefs and backed by Muslim clerics.

Mobs led by the radical Islamic political party Tahreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) have protested by the thousands in several Pakistani cities since the hearing, according to many news reports. TLP is calling for Bibi’s death, threatening to kill Supreme Court justices if Bibi is given clemency, the French news service AFP reported Oct. 10. TLP has threatened to stage widespread protests capable of paralyzing the country.

The death threats are credible and should be taken seriously, Gill told BP. The government would have to protect her if she is released, likely clandestinely taking her out of the country before announcing its decision.

“There’s just no other way to protect her life, other than the government itself actually doing something,” Gill said. “Hopefully there will be a plan to basically fly her over to another country. That’s really the only option really, because if she’s in Pakistan, somebody will find her.”

Gill referenced the 2012 case of Rimsha Masih, a mentally ill teenage girl acquitted of blasphemy stemming from accusations that she burned the Quran. To protect Masih, Pakistan’s military surrounded her with security and escorted her to a government helicopter and flew her to an undisclosed location, it was widely reported.

Pakistan’s military is strong and capable of protecting Bibi, Gill said, but not obligated to do so.

“If the government is willing to release her, they’re going to be willing to protect her as well,” Gill said. “The state has the power to do that; the government has the power to do that.”

Other Christians in the majority Muslim country also are in danger. In the past, mobs excited by blasphemy accusations have attacked and killed Christians, looting and burning their neighborhoods.

“It’s not an unusual thing,” Gill said. “It has happened in many cases, and that’s one of the reasons why I think Christians are generally afraid, because if she’s released and they can’t take it out on her, who else is left? Well, all these other Christians.”

Bibi has requested prayer, and many Christian watchdog groups are encouraging prayers for Bibi, her husband and five children, and other Christians in the country.

Since 1986 when Pakistan updated its blasphemy laws, at least 150 Christians, 564 Muslims, 459 Ahmadis and 21 Hindus have been jailed on blasphemy charges, according to religious freedom watchdog Open Doors USA. Before 1986, only 14 blasphemy cases were reported, Open Doors said on its website.

Bibi’s case is widely considered one of the most egregious cases of injustice stemming from the laws. One of more than 40 so-called blasphemers on death row or serving life sentences in Pakistan, according to ACLJ numbers, Bibi would be the first Pakistani the government has ever executed on a blasphemy conviction.

More than 50 people accused of blasphemy have been killed by angry mobs and others, and hundreds are serving or have served prison terms ranging from three years to 10 years on such accusations, according to the ACLJ.

Open Doors lists Pakistan, with a 96 percent Muslim population, as the fifth most dangerous country for Christians to live. On its website, Open Doors suggests the following prayer:

“Father, we come to You now pleading for Asia’s freedom and asylum. Our hearts break for this family and the church in Pakistan under fire. God, we ask that You would protect Asia and the Supreme Court judges also under threat. Father, give these judges bold courage to stand their ground and acquit her. God, we also pray with Asia’s husband and five children.

We ask that You would surround them with your protection, comfort, and strength. Give them Your peace as they wait for this decision amidst so much hate. And Father, we pray right now for the church in Pakistan as they watch this unfold and see these protests. We ask that You would remind them of Your power and love for them. Place people in their paths to encourage them in these fiery paths and affirm their commitment to remain in and with You.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was edited Oct. 26 in the fifth paragraph from the bottom, clarifying that 40 so-called blasphemers are on death row or serving life sentences in Pakistan.