The ICJ expressed disappointment in the adjournment of Asia bibi’s blasphemy appeal and urged the Supreme Court to set a new hearing date as soon as possible.
“Asia bibi has been on death row for six years under a bad law that has been improperly applied,” said Sam Zarifi, ICJ’s Asia Director. “The Supreme Court has previously held that people accused of blasphemy in Pakistan ‘suffer beyond proportion or repair’ – such delays in proceedings are one reason why.”
The hearing was adjourned because Justice Iqbal Hameed-ur-Rahman, one of the three judges to hear the case, recused himself from the bench on the day of the hearing, reportedly because of a “conflict of interest”.
“The date and bench for the hearing had been fixed nearly a week ago – it is difficult to understand why Justice Hameed-ur-Rahman’s decision to recuse himself was announced only at the hearing, with no alternative arrangements having been made,” added Zarifi.
Justice Hameed-ur-Rahman’s recusal is related to Salmaan Taseer’s murder case.
In 2011, Salmaan Taseer, the former Governor of Punjab, was killed by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri.
Qadri claimed he killed Taseer for questioning the merits of the blasphemy proceedings against Asia bibi and calling for reform of the blasphemy laws to prevent their misuse.
Mumtaz Qadri was convicted and sentenced to death for the killing in October 2011.
Qadri challenged the conviction and sentence before the Islamabad High Court, where Justice Hameed-ur-Rahman was one of the two judges who admitted his appeal for hearing.
Extremist Islamist groups have frequently held demonstrations calling for Asia bibi to be hanged.
A day before the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear Asia bibi’s appeal, an Islamist group publicly threatened it would take to the streets if Asia bibi was acquitted.
Asia bibi’s lawyer, Saif-ul-Malook, has also stated he has received threats for pursuing her case.
Under Pakistani and international standards, judges have a right and a duty to decide cases before them according to the law, free from fear of reprisals.
Governments must also ensure that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference from any person.
In a report published last year, the ICJ documented a pattern of threats and violence in blasphemy cases in Pakistan.
Judges who hear blasphemy cases are often harassed and threatened by those who demand that the suspect be convicted.
Some judges have reported receiving letters and phone calls warning them of attacks against themselves and their families if defendants in blasphemy cases are acquitted.
Where hearings are public, courtrooms are often packed with hostile crowds, chanting slogans against the accused. Often, these crowds are linked to violent Islamist groups.
The Government should take notice of this pattern of threats and reprisals and ensure the judges and lawyers in Asia bibi’s case are given adequate security to perform their duties independently and impartially, said the ICJ.
Sam Zarifi, ICJ Asia Pacific Regional Director (Bangkok), t: +66 807819002; e: sam.zarifi(a)icj.org
Reema Omer, ICJ International Legal Adviser for Pakistan (London), t: +44 7889565691; e: reema.omer(a)icj.org
Asia Noreen (Asia bibi) has been on death row since 2010, when a trial court convicted her of “defaming the Prophet Muhammad” and sentenced her to death. The Lahore High Court upheld her conviction and confirmed her death sentence in 2014.
In a briefing paper published on Wednesday, the ICJ assessed the fair trial violations in Asia bibi’s trial and appellate hearing.
The ICJ found glaring omissions both in the appraisal of evidence as well as the application of laws that brought her conviction into question.