ISLAMABAD (AFP, REUTERS) - Pakistan’s Supreme Court said it had reached a judgement Monday (Oct 8) after hearing the final appeal of a Christian mother on death row for blasphemy, but that it will announce its ruling later in the notorious case, which has gone all the way to the Vatican.
Chief Justice Saqib Nisar did not say when the three-member bench would reveal the fate of Asia Bibi – a mother-of-five who has been on death row since 2010 and could become the first person in Pakistan to be executed under the controversial blasphemy laws.
He said the delay was “for reasons to be recorded later”, and told media they could not publish comments on the hugely inflammatory case, which has incited violence in the past.
If the court upholds Bibi's conviction, her only recourse will be a direct appeal to the president for clemency.
Hardliners in Pakistan regularly call for her execution, including in Islamabad's Red Mosque.
The case has outraged Christians worldwide and been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help Bibi were assassinated, including Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who was shot by his own bodyguard.
The Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party, which makes punishing blasphemy its main campaign rallying cry and lionises the bodyguard who killed Mr Taseer, warned the court against any “concession or softness” for Bibi.
“If there is any attempt to hand her over to a foreign country, there will be terrible consequences,” TLP said in a statement.
But rights activists have warned that carrying the sentence out would be appeasement of populist extremists and a huge blow for minorities, who already face pervasive discrimination in the deeply conservative Muslim country.
Pope Benedict XVI joined in international calls for Bibi's release in 2010. In 2015 her daughter met with Pope Francis, who as the head of the Catholic Church offered prayers for her mother.
The allegations against Bibi date back to 2009, when she was working in a field and was asked to fetch water. Muslim women she was labouring with allegedly objected, saying that as a non-Muslim, she was unfit to touch the water bowl.
The women went to a local cleric and accused Bibi of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed, a charge so sensitive in Pakistan that anyone even accused of insulting Islam risks a violent and bloody death at the hands of vigilantes.
The charge is punishable by a maximum penalty of death under legislation that rights groups say is routinely abused to settle personal vendettas.
Calls for reform have regularly been met with violence and rejected.
Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan launched a wholehearted defence of the laws during his election campaign earlier this year, vowing that his party "fully" supports the legislation and "will defend it".