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Pakistan adjourns hearing of Christian woman on death row

Saiful Malook, left, lawyer of Pakistani Christian woman Aasia Bibi briefs media with Bibi's husband Ashiq Masih outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad, Pakistan. Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. Pakistan's supreme court has adjourned an appeal from a Christian woman Aasia Bibi who has been on death row on blasphemous charges since 2010 after one of the judges refused to hear the case citing a possible conflict of interest. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)
October 13, 2016 - 11:04 AM

ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's top court on Thursday adjourned the appeals hearing for a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy who has been on death row since 2010, as dozens of radical Islamists rallied in two major cities demanding her execution.

The case of Aasia Bibi, a mother of five, has drawn an international outcry and criticism of Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws.

She was arrested six years ago after she quarreled with Muslim women working at a farm harvesting berries in eastern Punjab province and charged with insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad, a charge she has repeatedly denied.

Her first appeal was dismissed by a Lahore High Court in 2014, but the Supreme Court stayed her execution in 2015 and suspended the high court verdict. The appeal to the top court is Bibi's final legal recourse.

On Thursday, a Supreme Court judge adjourned the hearing indefinitely, refusing to hear the appeal and citing a possible conflict of interest. Bibi's lawyer, Saiful Malook, told reporters that no new hearing date has been set.

Bibi's husband Ashiq Masih attended the brief session but left the courthouse without speaking to the media. He and the couple's children have been living at a secret location since Bibi's arrest, for security reasons.

Security was tightened around the court building ahead of the session. Pakistani Islamists have been demanding Bibi's execution and two officials — Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer and minorities' minister Shahbaz Bhatti — were murdered in 2011 after speaking in support of Bibi and calling for reform of Pakistan's blasphemy law.

Rallies also took place on Thursday in the cities of Lahore and Karachi, with demonstrators demanding Bibi's execution and warning that her release would lead to more bloodshed in Pakistan. Another such rally was planned for Friday.

Dozens of Pakistanis are sentenced to death each year under the blasphemy laws, which date back to the 1980s military rule of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq.

But in recent years, no executions on blasphemy charges have been carried out and the cases of those sentenced to death have been lingering on appeals.

Christians make up less than 5 per cent of Muslim-majority Pakistan, a nation of 180 million people. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI called for Bibi's release.

Zohra Yusuf, the head of Pakistan's independent Human Rights Commission, said she was disappointed over the delay in Thursday's appeals hearing.

"Bibi has been in the jail for nearly six years and she needs justice," Yusuf told The Associated Press. She criticized the judge for not "recusing himself" and allowing the session to proceed.

"This way, Bibi does not know for how long she will have to wait for a final court ruling about her fate," Yusuf said.

News from © The Associated Press, 2016
The Associated Press

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