Pakistan court upholds death penalty in Christian woman's blasphemy case

Asia Bibi's blasphemy conviction is symbolic and highly charged. But there's an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty in Pakistan with only one carried out since 2008. She also has several paths of appeal.

Salman Taseer, (r.) governor of Pakistan's Punjab Province, listens to Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi at a prison in Sheikhupura near Lahore, Pakistan, in November 2010. Ms. Bibi's death sentence on charges of blasphemy was upheld today by the Lahore High Court.

A Pakistani high court has upheld the death sentence given to Asia Bibi, a jailed Christian woman convicted of blasphemy in 2010, whose case at the time played into an atmosphere of recrimination and spawned several murders of prominent human rights and political figures.

Ms. Bibi’s lawyers had asked the Lahore High Court to overturn the death sentence which was handed down after she had a row with Muslim women neighbors at a village well in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

Bibi’s name and case have since become nearly synonymous with a sensitive national debate over blasphemy laws, which are not clearly defined and were further criminalized under the military dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul Haq in the 1980s. The laws can carry the death penalty, though in Pakistan since 2008 there has been an unofficial moratorium on the death sentence and only one person has been executed.

The Lahore death sentence came during a period of extreme attacks on Christians and minorities. In 2010 the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, visited Bibi in jail and was shortly after shot dead in Islamabad by his guard, who assumed that Mr. Taseer opposed the blasphemy law and supported Bibi.

In March 2011, the Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti – who questioned the laws and was photographed with Bibi's husband – was also assassinated in Islamabad.

Contrary to some frenzied headlines, it is doubtful that Bibi faces execution any time soon, if ever. Yet powerful extremist forces are still evident. This May a human rights lawyer, Rashid Rehman, who was defending a university lecturer accused of blasphemy, was shot dead in the city of Multan. And one-time assumptions that high courts would be more willing to overturn blasphemy judgments passed by lower courts are no longer held. 

Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told the Monitor that the “Judiciary is under an atmosphere of fear when it comes to blasphemy cases. In this particular instance [today's ruling on Bibi] the court was crowded with ... [blasphemy] supporters [who] celebrated the verdict. It is very difficult to get a fair judgment and it is very difficult to defend [blasphemy].... Once they’re accused, their entire future is over.”

Joseph Francis, director of a prominent legal assistance group, says that courts have recently denied appeals to overturn death sentences. “The court’s bent has changed," he said. "In the past, Christians would expect that there would be some relief from the high court.... But there was a lot of pressure from clerics, and there were at least 10 to 12 lawyers from the Khatm-e-Nabuwat movement [a hard-line right-wing pressure group] present in the court on Thursday.”

Bibi herself, described in accounts as a laborer, remains behind bars. With the newest legal blow, her options are limited. But it is likely the justice system will move slowly. Her lawyers are expected to appeal to the Supreme Court of Pakistan. If her death sentence is upheld there, the next option is a mercy appeal to the president, Mr. Francis said.

Ms. Yusuf points out that Bibi's safety in jail is of concern. Several prisoners accused or convicted of blasphemy have been attacked in jail, most recently in September, when a police officer shot and injured a man convicted of blasphemy and held at the Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi.

“There have been no executions in Pakistan in cases of blasphemy, but quite a few [accused of] blasphemy ... have been attacked in prison and some have been killed,” Yusuf says. “Even if they’re not executed, they’re still at risk in prison. It’s not just a question of the law taking its course but a question of the atmosphere that is created around each case.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Pakistan court upholds death penalty in Christian woman's blasphemy case
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today