Aasiya Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi, received the death penalty in 2010 after she allegedly made derogatory comments about Islam’s prophet Muhammad during an argument with a Muslim woman.

In June 2009, Noreen, then about 38, was picking berries in the fields as a day labourer in Sheikhupura, outside Lahore in eastern Pakistan. It was hot. She brought water to a female co-worker, who objected that the touch of a Christian had made the water haram, or religiously forbidden for Muslims. The woman apparently told Noreen to convert to Islam in order to become purified of her ritual impurity. Noreen’s rejoinder was perceived as an insult to Islam. She was arrested, accused of blasphemy against the Prophet and the Qur’an, and has been in prison ever since.

The Muslim woman, with her sister, were the only two eyewitnesses in the case, but the defence failed to convince the appeals judges that their evidence lacked credibility.

In the Lahore High Court appeal hearing in October 2014, Bibi’s then-lawyer, Naeem Shakir, argued that the main complainant in the case, the local Muslim cleric Mohamed Salaam, had not heard Bibi blaspheme, and that his original complaint had been lodged only five days after the women’s quarrel. Shakir argued that, during her 2010 trial, the only reason given for this delay was “deliberation and consultation”, and said that Salaam had acknowledged this in court.

Salaam was filmed by an international film crew for a film about Bibi in 2014, saying that it is his religious obligation to defend the dignity of Muhammad and that is why he decided to be a witness before the court. He only heard Bibi allegedly confess to blasphemy when she had been brought before a village council several days after the quarrel.

Her other main accuser, Mohamed Imran, owner of the field in which Noreen worked, was not present at the time of the quarrel either; he was away from the village.

However, the High Court ruled that it had no choice but to let the conviction and death penalty stand, based on the way the country’s laws are written, and on what it characterised as an inept trial defence.

At the same time, the court asked Pakistan’s lawmakers to craft legislation that would empower trial courts to apply a test that would make future blasphemy convictions much more difficult to achieve.

‘You have to be in hiding’

Noreen’s lawyer then filed an appeal with Pakistan’s Supreme Court and in July 2015 it agreed it would hear Noreen’s case.

Commentators praised the Court for its courage to hear the appeal in the face of strong public sentiment against anyone seen to denigrate Islam, with some calling it a “historic day for Pakistan”.

However, the appeal stalled in late 2016when one member of the three-judge panel recused himself.

In April 2018 Pakistan’s chief justice, Saqib Nisar, told Noreen’s lawyer, Saif-ul-Malook, that he would hear Asia’s appeal soon.

Since then Malook, who was the prosecution lawyer in the case of the murder of Punjab Governor Taseer, has been under 24-hours protection. Ahead of the hearing in Islamabad on 8 October he told AP News, “I have lost my health. I am a high blood pressure patient, my privacy is totally lost. You have to be in hiding,” as everyone knew his identity. “They look at this house and they know this is the home of a person who can be killed at any time by angry mullahs,” he said.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court is the last possibility for Noreen to see her death sentence repealed or she has to appeal to the President for mercy.

International attention

Bibi’s case has attracted global attention, much of it critical of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws, which critics contend are routinely abused as a pretext to settle personal scores.

In 2011 two prominent Pakistani politicians, Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, were assassinated after they spoke publicly in Bibi’s defence.

Following the killing of Taseer, Governor of Punjab, Bibi’s husband said she was “very afraid”. “She knows the Muslims have announced a price on her head and would go to any lengths to kill her,” he said. Authorities increased her security and moved her to an all-women facility, Multan Prison.

In May 2018 another politician who has championed the country’s minority communities, Ahsan Iqbal, survived an assassination attempt by a gunman protesting against the country’s blasphemy laws.

Pope Benedict XVI made a public plea for clemency and the EU’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Jan Figeľ, told Pakistani officials that the renewal of their export privileges to Europe would depend on the release of Asia Bibi.

Asia Bibi timeline

June 2009Aasiya Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi, mother of five, is arrested on charges of blasphemy.
November 2010Noreen convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. Her lawyer appeals verdict.
2011:
4 January
Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab Province who supported Noreen and called for reform of the country’s blasphemy laws, is assassinated by one of his bodyguards. As a result authorities increase security for Noreen and she is moved to the all-women Multan Prison.
2 MarchShahbaz Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minority Affairs who supported Noreen’s case and was outspoken critic of country’s widely condemned blasphemy laws, is assassinated.
20 OctoberNews emerges that Asia has been beaten by prison officer.
2014:
March - October
Lahore High Court starts appeal hearing but case keeps circulating among several judges who postpone its hearing, allegedly for fear of reprisal from extremist elements.
16 OctoberThe Lahore High Court confirms Noreen’s death sentence.
24 NovemberNoreen’s lawyer files appeal with Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
2015:
4 February
Noreen’s husband speaks out about how family’s lives are under constant threat following her conviction and sentencing five years ago.
22 JulySupreme Court decides to hear Noreen’s appeal.
OctoberNoreen is moved to solitary prison cell because of fears for her security after Supreme Court upholds sentence against former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer’s murderer.
2016:
October
About 150 top Muslim clerics from radical Islamist group Sunni Tehreek call for Noreen to be hanged.
2017:
20 April
Mufti Muhammad Haneef Qureshi renews call for Noreen’s execution.
5 October .Noreen nominated for the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
NovemberThree European Parliament members visit Noreen’s family in Pakistan.
DecemberThe EU’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Jan Figeľ, tells Pakistani officials that renewal of export privileges to Europe depends on Noreen’s release.
2018:
February
Noreen’s husband and daughter meet Pope Francis in the Vatican.
21 AprilChief Justice Saqib Nisar announces he will hear Noreen’s appeal soon.
6 MayAhsan Iqbal, Pakistan’s interior minister and supporter of the country’s minority communities, survives assassination attempt after meeting prevent her from Christians in his constituency.
8 OctoberSupreme Court hears Noreen’s case but delays ruling.
10 OctoberRadical religious groups threaten judges over possibility of releasing Noreen, and ask High Court to leaving the country.