Pakistan’s supreme court has temporarily suspended the death sentence of a Christian woman who was found guilty of blasphemy in 2010.
In a case that attracted international attention, Asia Bibi, 50, was sentenced to death for allegedly speaking ill of Prophet Muhammad during an argument over a glass of well water.
Mrs Bibi, a farm worker and mother of five, was the first woman ever to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law.
But on Wednesday, the Supreme Court suspended her sentence and ordered an examination of all records pertaining to the incident, according to Mrs Bibi’s lawyer.
“The execution of Asia Bibi has been suspended and will remain suspended until the decision of this appeal,” Saif ul-Malook said.
Mr Malook said he had filed a petition on behalf of his client, requesting that the court examine Mrs Bibi’s sentence as the original trial had not been conducted “on a fair basis”.
No date had been set for her execution, he added.
The allegations against Mrs Bibi date back to June 2009, when she was labouring in a field and a row broke out with some Muslim women she was working with.
According to Mrs Bibi’s statement, she was asked to collect water. When she returned, several Muslim women labourers objected, saying that as a Christian, Mrs Bibi must not touch the water bowl. At that point a row broke out.
A few days later, Mrs Bibi says she was beaten and tortured by a mob after the women claimed she had insulted Muhammad. She was later arrested and sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
Her arrest generated debate across the country.
Two high profile politicians were murdered in 2011 after calling for reforms to the blasphemy law and describing Mrs Bibi’s trial as flawed.
One of those – Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab – was murdered by his own bodyguard.
Although nobody has ever been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, at least 50 people charged with the crime have been murdered before their trials were completed.
Mrs Bibi’s family have been hiding ever since her arrest and receive regular death threats.
Speaking on the phone from an unidentified location, Mrs Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, said: “Today is the happiest day for me and my five children. I am now hopeful that my wife, my children and I will get justice from the Supreme Court of Pakistan.”
“When I have ever met my wife in her cell before, I have found her weeping most of the time, but today she is happy”, he said.
Mrs Bibi’s case has become an international cause celebre among rights groups and has even been offered asylum in France by the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, in the hope she can escape the death penalty.
Mr Masih expressed gratitude to all the human rights organisations who had supported his wife’s case, and felt confident that she would be proved innocent.