Hardliners threaten judges as Pakistan awaits ruling in Asia Bibi case

Religious hardliners in Pakistan this week threatened judges and announced protests as the country awaits a Supreme Court ruling on the fate of a Christian woman who faces becoming the first person to be executed for blasphemy.

Asia Bibi, who has been on death row since 2010, is at the centre of the high-profile case which has divided Pakistan and drawn prayers from the Vatican. Successive appeals against her conviction have failed.

On Monday the Supreme Court heard her last appeal and said it had reached a judgement, but refused to announce it immediately "for reasons to be recorded later".

On Wednesday Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a hardline religious political party – which had a strong showing in nationwide elections earlier this year – said in a press conference aired via YouTube that if she was freed the justices responsible would meet a "horrible" end. The group's leaders also called for mass protests on Friday.

 TLP, founded in 2015, blockaded the capital Islamabad for several weeks last year calling for stricter enforcement of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws. That protest forced the resignation of the federal law minister and paved the way for the group to poll more than 2.23 million votes in the July 25 general election, in what analysts called a "surprisingly" rapid rise.

Separately on Wednesday, a former spokesman for Islamabad's notorious Red Mosque moved to prevent Bibi from leaving the country by petitioning the capital's High Court to put her on the no-fly list. That case will be heard on Friday.

"Western forces are trying to get Asia Bibi out of the country but she should be hanged," the petitioner, Hafiz Ihtesham Ahmed, told journalists.

If the court upholds Bibi's conviction, the only recourse she will have will be a mercy petition to the president. Freedom in Pakistan, however, means a life under threat by extremists.

The mere accusation of blasphemy is so explosive in the conservative Muslim country that anyone even accused of insulting Islam risks a violent and bloody death at the hands of vigilantes.

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 Muhammad.

The charge is punishable by death under legislation that rights groups say is routinely abused to settle personal vendettas. But calls for reform have regularly been met with violence and rejected.

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.

Politicians including new Prime Minister Imran Khan invoked blasphemy during this summer's election, vowing to defend the laws. Khan met with bishops from various churches in Pakistan on Tuesday and "stated that the constitution... provides equal rights to all citizens irrespective of cast, colour or creed and the government will continue to protect rights of the minorities", a statement from his office said.    (AFP)