Pakistan’s Supreme Court yesterday postponed an appeal into a notorious blasphemy case against a Christian mother on death row after one of the judges stepped down, with thousands of security forces deployed after threats from Muslim clerics.
Police and troops had been stationed across Islamabad as the court readied to hear a final appeal in the case of Asia Bibi, who has been on death row since 2010. Observers had warned of “tremendous” repercussions for minorities in deeply conservative Pakistan.
However, one of the three-judge bench, Justice Iqbal Hameed ur Rehman, told the court he had to recuse himself, claiming a conflict of interest.
“I was a part of the bench that was hearing the case of Salmaan Taseer, and this case is related to that,” he told the court.
Taseer, a liberal provincial governor, was gunned down in Islamabad in 2011 after speaking out for Bibi.
His assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was hanged earlier this year in a step liberals hailed as progressive, but which brought hardliners into the streets calling for Bibi’s death.
Rehman was chief justice at the Islamabad High Court which heard Qadri’s appeal in 2011, according to local media.
The Supreme Court did not immediately set a new date for Bibi’s appeal. Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Pakistan. Anyone even accused of insulting Islam risks a violent and bloody death at the hands of vigilantes.
Rights groups complain the controversial legislation is often abused to carry out personal vendettas, mainly against Christians.
Observers had warned of possible violence if Bibi’s conviction was overturned, with some calling the case a battle for Pakistan’s soul as the state walks a line between upholding human rights and appeasing hardliners.
Clerics at the influential Red Mosque in Islamabad warned late on Wednesday they would launch a nationwide protest if Bibi is freed.
“Anyone who will defend or will protect the blasphemer of the Prophet will equally be considered as blasphemer,” spokesman Hafiz Ihtesham Ahmed said.
He warned against foreign diplomats lobbying for Bibi’s release, saying clerics would mobilize the public if she was freed and “everyone will become Qadri.”
Bibi’s lawyer, Saif-ul-Mulook, called the Red Mosque threat “big.”
“I hope the government takes it very seriously and takes care of our security,” he told media outside the court yesterday.
Bibi was convicted and sentenced to hang in 2010 after an argument with a Muslim woman over a bowl of water. Her supporters maintain her innocence and insist it was a personal dispute, and the Vatican has called for her release.
However, successive appeals have been rejected, and if the Supreme Court bench eventually upholds Bibi’s conviction, her only recourse will be a direct appeal to the president for clemency.
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