Activists voiced new fears for a Pakistani woman on death row for blasphemy Friday, as religious groups launched fresh calls for her hanging after this week’s execution of a killer feted by Islamists.
Asia Bibi, a Christian mother-of-five, whose plight has prompted prayers from the Vatican, has been on death row since she was convicted in 2010 of committing blasphemy during an argument with a Muslim woman over a bowl of water.
Bibi’s lawyer Saif ul Mulook said Friday religious groups have launched a “fresh offensive” against his client in the wake of the execution of Mumtaz Qadri.
A former police bodyguard, Qadri killed liberal Punjab governor Salman Taseer in 2011, angered by his call to reform Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, as well as his promise to help Bibi.
Qadri’s actions saw him feted as a hero by Islamists, and his funeral Tuesday brought up to 100,000 people into the streets of Rawalpindi, near the capital Islamabad, many chanting for Bibi to be hanged.
On Thursday a statement issued from Islamabad’s Red Mosque called on the government to execute “the blasphemer Asia Bibi as soon as possible and not bow to international pressure”.
Christian activist Shamoon Gill, a long-time advocate for Bibi, said Friday that Islamist groups are “putting her life in danger”, citing police who warned him to be vigilant this week.
Even if authorities do not succumb to the pressure, religious groups could incite any of Qadri’s thousands of supporters to vigilante action, he warned.
Prison officials put Bibi in isolation in October over fears of attacks by vigilantes after the Supreme Court upheld Qadri’s death sentence.
Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Pakistan which carries the death penalty. The country has not yet executed anyone on the charge — but anyone convicted, or even just accused, of insulting Islam risks a violent and bloody death at the hands of vigilantes.
Last year a British-Pakistani citizen who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy was shot and wounded by a guard at Rawalpindi’s Adiala jail.
And a Christian labourer and his wife were burned in a kiln last November after being accused of throwing pages of the Koran in the garbage.
Critics including European governments claim the blasphemy laws are misused, with hundreds languishing in jails under false charges that could see them face fines, life imprisonment or death by hanging.
Small protests in cities including the capital Islamabad after Friday prayers also saw Qadri supporters calling for Bibi to be hanged. In Hyderabad, demonstrators broke into the press club and beat up a journalist there, police said Friday.