ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s Supreme Court has postponed its ruling on a final appeal by a Christian woman on death row since 2010 on charges of blasphemy.
The judicial panel listened to Asia Bibi’s defense lawyer challenge statements by those who accused her of insulting Islam’s prophet, an allegation that can incite riots in conservative Pakistan.
The charge dates back to 2009 when Bibi went to get water for her and her fellow farmworkers. Two Muslim women refused to take a drink from a container used by a Christian. A few days later, a mob accused her of blasphemy. She was convicted and sentenced to death.
The three-judge panel led by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar did not indicate on Monday when the court would announce its ruling.
Internationally, Bibi’s case has generated outrage. But in Pakistan, it has rallied radical Islamists and militant groups who have embraced Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law, using it to cultivate support and attack those who try to break their power.
Just defending her is dangerous.
“I have lost my health. I am a high blood pressure patent, my privacy is totally lost. You have to be in hiding,” her lawyer Saiful Malook told the Associated Press. Everyone on his tree-lined street knows his identity. “They look at this house and they know this is the home of a person who can be killed at any time by angry mullahs.”
Outside Malook’s home in the Punjab provincial capital of Lahore, police provide around-the-clock security.
In 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province was shot and killed by one of his elite guards for defending Bibi and criticizing misuse of the blasphemy law. Malook prosecuted his killer, Mumtaz Qadri, who was hanged for his crime.
Qadri has since become a martyr to millions, who make a pilgrimage to a shrine erected in his name by his family outside the capital of Islamabad.
Last month a member of Pakistan’s newly elected government, which is led by Imran Khan, a former cricket star who has embraced religious conservatism, offered prayers at Qadri’s shrine, generating an outcry from rights activists. Qadri’s supporters have openly called for the immediate death of anyone accused of blasphemy.
An unprecedented number of religious parties participated in the July elections that put Khan in power. But as in previous elections, they garnered less than 10 percent of the popular vote. Still, they have allies among all the major parties.
One party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik, won three provincial seats in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province by campaigning on a single issue — the finality of the Prophet Muhammad. Its followers are ardent supporters of the harsh blasphemy law that prescribes death for anyone found guilty of insulting Islam.
According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, 71 countries have blasphemy laws — around a quarter of them are in the Middle East and North Africa and around a fifth are European countries, though enforcement and punishment varies.
Pakistan is one of the most ferocious enforcers.
At least 1,472 people were charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2016, according to statistics collected by the Center for Social Justice, a Lahore-based group. Of those, 730 were Muslims, 501 were Ahmadis — a sect reviled by mainstream Muslims as heretical — while 205 were Christians and 26 were Hindus. The center said it didn’t know the religion of the final 10 because they were killed by vigilantes before they could get their day in court.
While Pakistan’s law carries the death penalty for blasphemy and offenders have been sentenced to death, so far no one has ever been executed.
Malook said an acquittal could generate countrywide protests. In the past, people charged with blasphemy but later freed have had to flee Pakistan for their safety.