Pakistan’s Supreme Court has today agreed to hear an appeal by a Christian woman against her death sentence for blasphemy, in a case that has drawn criticism from rights campaigners.
Asia Bibi, a mother of five, has been on death row since 2010 after being convicted of insulting the Islamic Prophet Mohammed during a row over drinking water with Muslim women with whom she was working in a field.
Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Pakistan, with even unproven allegations often prompting mob violence, and acquittals in court are rare.
Bibi’s death sentence was confirmed in October 2014 by the high court in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province where the incident took place.
She denies the charges against her and in November appealed against the death sentence.
A Supreme Court bench sitting in Lahore on Wednesday agreed to consider the appeal in detail — rejecting the option to dismiss it.
“The Supreme Court today accepted the petition of my client to appeal against death sentence confirmation by the Lahore High Court,” Mrs Bibi’s lawyer Saiful Malook said.
The court will fix a date in due course to review the substance of the appeal, Malook added.
Chaudhry Ghulam Mustapha, the lawyer for the complainant — a local Muslim prayer leader – opposed the petition on the grounds that it had been filed too late.
Justice Saqib Nisar, heading a three-judge Supreme Court bench, said the court would hear this argument in the future proceedings.
At an earlier hearing Malook said he would ask the court to look at flaws in the case including allegedly manipulated evidence.
The lawyer said the blasphemy allegation was concocted by Mrs Bibi’s enemies to target her and had no basis in fact.
The allegations against her date back to June 2009, when she was working in a field and a dispute broke out with some Muslim women with whom she was working.
She was asked to fetch water but the Muslim women objected, saying that as a non-Muslim she was unfit to touch the water bowl.
A few days later the women went to a local cleric and made the blasphemy allegations.
Bibi’s husband has also written to Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain to ask for her to be pardoned and allowed to move to France.
Under Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy laws, insulting the Prophet Mohammed carries the death penalty, though the country has never executed anyone for the crime.
But anyone convicted, or even just accused, of insulting Islam, risks a violent and bloody death at the hands of vigilantes.
Bonded laborer Shehzad Masih and his pregnant wife Shama Bibi were beaten by a mob of 1,500 people then thrown into a lit furnace last year in a crazed reaction to rumours they had thrown pages of the Koran into the garbage.
Critics including European governments say Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often misused to settle personal scores.
Christians, who make up around 1.6 percent of the country’s 200 million people, are often discriminated against and marginalized by the Muslim majority.