Pakistan’s Supreme Court will decide on January 29 whether to allow an appeal against its acquittal of a Christian woman at the centre of a blasphemy row, a lawyer involved in the case said on Thursday.
If the court refuses to allow the appeal, it will remove the last legal hurdle facing Asia Bibi, who is a prime target in conservative Muslim-majority Pakistan and remains in protective custody.
Bibi was on death row for eight years for blasphemy, a hugely sensitive charge.
The Supreme Court’s decision in October last year to overturn her conviction ignited days of violent demonstrations, with enraged Islamists calling for her beheading, mutiny within the powerful military and the assassination of the country’s top judges.
The government has since launched a crackdown on the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party — the Islamist group driving the violent protests — charging its leaders with sedition and terrorism.
But authorities also struck a deal with the protesters to end the violence, forming an agreement which included allowing a final review of the Supreme Court’s judgement.
On January 29, “the court will determine if our appeal against her acquittal is admitted”, Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, the lawyer who filed the petition seeking an appeal, told AFP.
“Usually the court decides on the same day if the appeal is admitted or not,” he added.
Under Pakistan’s creaky legal system any private citizen can petition the courts on any matter of public interest or human rights, as in the Bibi case.
However legal experts said it would be highly unusual for the Supreme Court to overturn its own decision, especially one that as carefully drafted as the Bibi ruling.
“It is very rare,” lawyer Saad Rasool told AFP.
The three-member bench that will hear the petition will be headed by new Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, considered the country’s top expert in criminal law and who helped draft the decision to acquit Bibi.
Blasphemy continues to be a massively inflammatory issue in Pakistan, where even unproven accusations of insulting Islam can spark lynchings.
Approximately 40 people are believed to be on death row or serving a life sentence for blasphemy, according to a 2018 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Many cases see Muslims accusing Muslims. But rights activists have warned that minorities — particularly Christians — are often caught in the crossfire, with blasphemy charges used to settle personal scores.
Speculation has been rife since Bibi’s acquittal that an asylum deal with a European or North American country may be in the works.
The allegations against her date back to 2009, when Muslim women accused her of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed, a charge punishable by death under the colonial-era legislation.
Her case drew the attention of international rights groups and swiftly became the most high-profile in the country.
Pope Benedict XVI called for her release in 2010, while in 2015 her daughter met his successor and the current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis.