(CNSNews.com) – A high court in Pakistan on Thursday upheld the death sentence for Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who in 2010 became the first Pakistani woman to be sentenced to death for “blasphemy,” after Muslim fellow laborers accused her of insulting Mohammed.
After the high court in the Punjab provincial capital Lahore dismissed Asia’s appeal, an organization that campaigns against Pakistan’s notorious laws accused the panel’s two judges of being swayed by about 25 Islamic clerics who it said were present in the courtroom “to apply pressure.”
The accusation was made by the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), an organization with branches in Pakistan and Britain that provides legal assistance to Christians accused under the blasphemy laws.
“I am very disappointed with today’s result and my thoughts and prayers are with Asia’s family,” said CLAAS-UK director Nasir Saeed.
“It is not surprising that the judges were swayed by pressure from local influential Muslims, but I had hoped that justice would prevail and that the case would be judged based on its merits,” he said. “While the rest of the world condemns such draconian laws, Pakistan continues to persecute its minorities simply because of their religion.”
CLAAS now plans to make a final appeal to Pakistan’s Supreme Court, but says because of a large backlog of cases the process could take years. Asia has already been behind bars since June 2009.
“I have to now remain hopeful that the Supreme Court judges will look at the case objectively and allow the final appeal, eventually acquitting Asia,” Saeed said.
Pakistan’s government could intervene in Asia’s case and those of others convicted of blasphemy, but for years it has shied away from calls to challenge the laws, wary of angering Muslim radicals.
The risks were hammered home when two senior officials who championed Asia ’s case and criticized the laws – a liberal Muslim governor and a Christian federal cabinet minister – were assassinated in 2011.
Religious freedom campaigners have long urged the U.S. government to apply pressure on Islamabad, a major recipient of U.S. foreign aid. But although international religious freedom legislation does provide tools to do so, the State Department has chosen not to apply them, favoring dialogue on the matter instead.
Working with a group of Muslim women in a berry field on a summer day in 2009, Asia took a drink from a communal well during a rest break, upsetting co-workers who accused the non-Muslim of defiling the water.
According to Anne-Isabelle Tollet, a French journalist who worked with her in prison on a book, Asia had responded, “I don’t believe that Mohammed would share the same view as you.”
She was then accused of blaspheming Islam’s prophet, arrested, tried and convicted. In November 2010, Asia was sentenced to death by hanging..
Under Pakistan’s penal code, insulting Mohammed or desecrating the Qur’an are criminal offenses, punishable by death in the former case, or life imprisonment in the latter.
Since 2002 the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a statutory watchdog, has called on the administration to designate Pakistan a “country of particular concern,” a step that would make it eligible for sanctions or other measures intended to prod governments to stop violating religious freedom.
Each year the State Department has declined to do so, most recently last July.