ISLAMABAD—Pakistan’s Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal in the case of a Christian woman facing the death penalty for blaspheming Islam.
Court officials say justices on Wednesday suspended the execution of 50-year-old Asia Bibi until it renders a decision on her death sentence appeal. Though a temporary suspension is routine when the court accepts an appeal, defense lawyers are hopeful the court’s decision will lead to an acquittal.
A lower court convicted Bibi of blasphemy in 2010 and sentenced her to death for comments she made about Islam during an argument with co-workers over drinking water.
Blasphemy is a serious charge in Pakistan where even unproven allegations can spark mob violence and acquittals are rare. Bibi’s lawyer, Saif-ul-Malook, says despite a weak legal case against his client, the lower court succumbed to pressure.
“I think there is a lot of religious pressure existing in the country,” he said. “And as far as the trial courts are concerned, they cannot stand the test of pressure — public pressure, the bar’s pressure, and the religious element’s pressure.”
Comments or actions considered blasphemous to Islam carry the death penalty under Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy laws, but the country has never executed anyone for the crime. Human rights activists say accusations of blasphemy are increasing because the law is often abused to settle grudges and seize money or property.
Bibi denies the charges against her, but a family spokesman, Joseph Nadeem, said that even if she wins her appeal, it will not be safe for her to live in Pakistan.
“Many people are against her and are chasing to kill her,” the friend said. “And we prefer to send her somewhere abroad and safe.”
The fear is not unfounded. Several people in the past have been killed after facing blasphemy accusations. Victims include an influential governor and a federal minister, both of whom wanted to amend the country’s blasphemy laws.