Aasiya Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi, received the death penalty in 2010 after she allegedly made derogatory comments about the Islam’s prophet during an argument with a Muslim woman.
In June 2009, Noreen, then about 38, was picking berries in the fields as a labourer in Sheikhupura, outside Lahore in eastern Pakistan. She brought water to one of her co-workers, who objected that the touch of a Christian had made the water haram, or religiously forbidden for Muslims. Noreen was told to convert to Islam in order to become purified of her ritual impurity. Her rejoinder was perceived as an insult of Islam. She was arrested, accused of blasphemy against the Prophet of Islam and the Qur’an, and has been held in prison since.
The Muslim woman, together with her sister, were the only two direct witnesses in the subsequent court case. The trial court judge convicted her and gave her the death penalty. If executed, Noreen would be the first woman put to death under Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws.
In October 2014, the Lahore High Court, an appeals court for Pakistan’s largest province, 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.
In July 2015, Pakistan’s Supreme Court agreed it would hear Noreen’s final appeal, but the appeal stalled in late 2016 when one member of the three-judge panel recused himself.
Noreen’s case attracted widespread global attention from governments and human-rights agencies, much of it critical of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws. Pope Benedict XVI made a public plea for clemency.