Lahore (AsiaNews) – Paul Bhatti, a former Federal Minister for National Harmony and leader of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), spoke to AsiaNews today about the decision by the Supreme Court of Pakistan to stay the execution of Asia Bibi.
“We are confident and expect that she will be released in the near future,” he said. “The decision is a positive step not only for her, but also for many other people accused of blasphemy.”
For the Catholic activist, “The supreme justices decided in accordance with the law and were not influenced by external elements. This will ensure justice for all.” In fact, “So far, the Supreme Court has never executed anyone falsely accused of blasphemy. Thus, there is hope for a positive outcome."
This morning, a three-member bench at the Supreme Court's Lahore registry admitted the petition filed by Asia Bibi’s lawyers for full hearing and ordered for all records pertaining to the case that led to her conviction.
The 50-year-old Christian mother of five children was sentenced to death for blasphemy and has been in solitary confinement for many years waiting for her appeal to go through.
In her appeal, she says that she did not utter any blasphemous remarks towards Islam or the Prophet Muhammad, which were the bases for her conviction. For this reason, she is asking the court to strike down her death sentence.
Arrested on 19 June 2009, she was sentenced to death by a lower court in November 2010. Since then she has been on death row, and in solitary confinement for security reasons.
Punjab governor Salman Taseer, a Muslim, and the Federal Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, were murdered in 2011 for speaking out on her behalf.
In order to free her, Pakistani Christians have promoted several times days of fasting and prayer, joined by some Muslims.
The appeal court upheld the original verdict, accepting the accusations made by two Muslim women who said that they witnessed the alleged blasphemy.
In Asia Bibi’s trial, "there are many negative points,” Paul Bhatti said, “but there are also some positive elements in her favour that can be discussed."
For him, the new hearing "will lead to her release. I am sure of that – because pressure was put on judges in the past and she could not be properly defended."
"I am optimistic. In the near future, she will be freed,” he said. “The international community has paid attention to the case, but Pakistani justice must be praised for operating in a transparent manner."
Fr Bonnie Mendes is also optimistic. A priest from Faisalabad (Punjab), he is the former executive secretary of the Justice and Peace (NCJP) and coordinator of Caritas Asia.
"Her chances to prove that she is innocent are very strong,” said the priest, “because she was only accused out of jealousy.”
“Christians,” he added, “have long prayed for her release and now the international community will pray even more for her. What she is asking is justice, nothing else."
Sobia John, a Christian human rights activist, said that the judges' decision "is an answer to prayer from around the world, for Asia."
She warns, however, that when she is released, "she and her family will not be able to go home because of the constant death threats hanging over their heads by some Muslim clerics."
Suneel Malik, director of the Peace and Human Development Foundation, remembers the years Asia spent in prison during which she was "denied justice", whilst Muslim leaders "have committed acts of blasphemy in front of the cameras, without being arrested or prosecuted."
Finally, for Peter Jacob, after the "procedural victory ", the issue now is "how it will be presented in court." For him, the government "has to work on the political end of the story" and stop "the loss of life due to senseless violence in the name of religion".
With a population of more than 180 million people (97 per cent Muslim), Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, the second largest Muslim nation after Indonesia.
About 80 per cent of Muslims are Sunni, whilst Shias are 20 per cent. Hindus are 1.85 per cent, followed by Christians (1.6 per cent) and Sikhs (0.04 per cent).
Scores of violent incidents have occurred in recent years, against entire communities (Gojra in 2009, and Joseph Colony, Lahore, in March 2013), places of worship (Peshawar, September 2013) and individuals ( Sawan Masih, Asia Bibi, Rimsha Masih and Robert Fanish Masih, who died in prison), often perpetrated under the pretext of the country's blasphemy laws.
(Shafique Khokhar contributed to this article.)