NEW: Human Rights Watch describes latest ruling as a "disgrace to Pakistan's judiciary"
In 2010, a Pakistani court sentenced Christian woman Asia Bibi to death for blasphemy
On October 16, the Lahore High Court upheld the verdict after hearing her appeal
Bibi's attorney says he plans to appeal to Pakistan's Supreme Court, the highest court
A Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan plans to take her case to the country’s highest court after a high court last week rejected her appeal, her attorney says.
Asia Bibi, a mother of five from Punjab province, was accused of defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed during a 2009 argument with Muslim fellow field workers.
The workers had refused to drink from a bucket of water she had touched because she was not Muslim.
In November 2010, a Pakistani district court found Bibi guilty of blasphemy. The offense is punishable by death or life imprisonment, according to Pakistan’s penal code, and Bibi was sentenced to hang.
On October 16, the Lahore High Court upheld the verdict.
Human Rights Watch described the court’s decision as a “disgrace to Pakistan’s judiciary.”
“Asia Bibi’s case is an example of how Pakistan’s vaguely worded blasphemy law has led to discrimination, persecution and murder since its imposition almost three decades ago,” spokesman Phelim Kine told CNN.
Bibi’s attorney, Naeem Shakir, told CNN on Monday that he would file an appeal once he had received a detailed copy of the judgment.
“I have a very strong case, I am sure the Supreme Court will provide us with relief. There is no concrete evidence against Asia Bibi, and the courts are only relying on the statement on those two women,” Shakir said.
At a 2010 media conference, Bibi said the allegations against her were lies fabricated by a group of women who didn’t like her.
“We had some differences, and this was their way of taking revenge,” she said.
An investigation by Shahbaz Bhatti, who was then Pakistan’s minister for minority affairs, also found the charges stemmed from religious and personal enmity, and he recommended Bibi’s release.
Bhatti was the only Christian member of the Cabinet in Pakistan, where 95% of people are Muslim, and had opposed the blasphemy law. In 2011, he was assassinated in Islamabad.
The Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility, saying the killing was “a message to all of those who are against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.”
Two months earlier, the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, had been shot dead by his security guard because he, too, had supported Bibi and spoken out against the law.
Speaking Monday after last week’s verdict, Shakir admitted also feeling that his life was in danger.
“I do feel threatened. Even in the court, there were some two dozen people who were against Asia Bibi. I have not received any threats literally, but the presence of people there makes the environment very hostile toward us,” he told CNN.
Those calling for Bibi’s execution welcomed the court’s ruling, Shakir said: “Some of them were so overjoyed and happy that they started crying in delight on hearing the decision of the court.”
Qari Saleem, one of the clerics pursuing the case, told CNN via phone that Bibi deserved the punishment. “I am very happy at the decision of the court, and justice has been done,” Saleem said, adding that sweets had been distributed in court after the ruling “out of joy and happiness.”
Human rights groups’ reaction
Initial news of Bibi’s death sentence sparked outrage among international human rights groups, which condemned Pakistan’s blasphemy law as a source of violence and persecution against religious minorities.
Human Rights Watch’s Kine said the law largely targeted religious minorities and was “all too often manipulated to seek personal disputes.”
“Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should use the power granted to him under Pakistan’s Constitution to end Asia Bibi’s nightmare of years of imprisonment and the threat of a death sentence by pardoning her and repealing or reforming the country’s blasphemy law to prevent such tragic mockeries of justice from occurring in (the) future,” he said.
Amnesty International last week described the decision as “a grave injustice.”
“Asia Bibi should never have been convicted in the first place – still less sentenced to death – and the fact that she could pay with her life for an argument is sickening,” an Amnesty spokesman said.
In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI called for Bibi to be released, and in 2012, activists presented a petition to the U.N. Human Rights Council calling on Pakistan to free her.
Bibi wrote about her ordeal in a 2012 book called “Get Me Out of Here.” It includes a letter she wrote to her family urging them to have faith in God. “My children,” she wrote, “don’t lose courage or faith in Jesus Christ.”
Adeel Raja reported from Islamabad, and Susannah Cullinane reported from London. CNN’s Reza Sayah contributed to this report.