Pakistan's top court to rule on call for appeal against Asia Bibi

Tue 29 Jan 2019 at 12:30 International

NNA - The Islamist group leading protests against Asia Bibi, a Christian woman enmeshed in a years-long blasphemy row, told its members to be on alert Tuesday as Pakistan's Supreme Court was set to announce whether it will allow an appeal against its decision to acquit her.

Judges -- including Pakistan's new chief justice -- are expected to toss out the petition against their decision last October to free Bibi from death row, where she languished for eight years.

If they do, it could lift the last legal hurdle between her and a possible deal for asylum abroad, with speculation rampant she could go to a European or North American country.

The Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party, which led violent protests demanding Bibi's execution after her acquittal, called for its members to be ready for action in a message sent to journalists.

But most of its leaders remain in detention after a government crackdown, and few protesters could be seen at the court in Islamabad, where security appeared as normal.

That did not prevent those who did show up for the hearing from calling for violence against Bibi, however.

"She deserves to be murdered according to Shariah," Hafiz Ehtisham Ahmed, an Islamist activist linked to the extremist Red Mosque in Islamabad, told AFP.

Bibi will not be safe even if she leaves the country, he warned. "If she goes abroad, don't Muslims live there? If she goes out of Pakistan... anybody can kill her there."

Bibi's lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook, who returned to Pakistan over the weekend after spending weeks abroad in the wake of his client's acquittal, dismissed the petition as "frivolous" as he walked into the court.

"It's neither in accordance with Supreme Court's former verdicts nor in accordance with law, it will be dismissed Allah willing," Mulook told AFP.

Bibi was sentenced to death in 2010 in what swiftly became Pakistan's most infamous blasphemy case.

The Supreme Court overturned her conviction last year, but she remains in protective custody as a prime target in conservative Muslim Pakistan, where blasphemy is a hugely sensitive charge and her acquittal ignited days of violent demonstrations, with enraged Islamists calling for her beheading.

However authorities also struck a deal to end the violence which included allowing the petition seeking an appeal against the Supreme Court's judgement.

- Inflammatory issue -

"The court will determine if our appeal against her acquittal is admitted," said Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, the lawyer who filed the petition on behalf of Qari Salam, a cleric who made the first official complaint against Bibi in 2009.

Petition reviews are usually settled on the same day they are heard by the court. Experts say it would be highly unusual for the court to allow an appeal against its own ruling.

The three-member bench hearing the petition will be headed by new Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa -- considered the country's top expert in criminal law -- who helped draft the decision to acquit Bibi.

Blasphemy remains a massively inflammatory issue in Pakistan, where even unproven accusations of insulting Islam can spark lynchings.

Many cases see Muslims accusing Muslims, and rights activists say blasphemy charges are frequently used to settle personal scores.

Minorities -- particularly Christians -- are often caught in the crossfire.

The allegations against Bibi date back to 2009, when Muslim women accused her of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed, a charge punishable by death under Pakistan law.

The accusation emerged from an argument after Bibi was asked to fetch water while working in the fields, but the women objected to her touching the water bowl as a non-Muslim.

Bibi has denied the charges, and her prosecution rallied international rights groups, politicians and religious figures.

Pope Benedict XVI called for her release in 2010, while in 2015 her daughter met his successor Pope Francis.

Unconfirmed Pakistani media reports claim Bibi's two daughters have already gone to Canada. ---AFP


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