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Pakistani Christian woman convicted of blasphemy awaits verdict on death sentence

Supreme Court judges are expected to rule on Aasia Bibi's appeal as demonstrators call for the death penalty to be upheld.
Image: Pakistan blasphemy protest
Demonstrators protest against a Christian woman Asia Bibi in Lahore, Pakistan, Friday. Rahat Dar / EPA

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A Christian woman's fate hung in the balance on Thursday as Pakistan's Supreme Court prepared to announce whether she would be executed under the country's controversial blasphemy laws.

Demonstrators were out in the streets of Lahore last week demanding judges uphold the death penalty for Asia Bibi. Chanting "Hang infidel Asia," activists from the Tehreek-e-Labbaik party also rallied in other cities Friday, threatening wider protests if she is freed.

The mother of five was convicted in 2010 for insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad during an argument and remains on death row while appealing the case.

Bibi's lawyer Saiful Malook told NBC News he couldn't comment on the details of the case as a verdict on the appeal is imminent. Malook wouldn't comment on rumors that he faces death threats for defending Bibi but said the jailed woman's family has moved to the United Kingdom.

Image: Asia Bibi
Asia Bibi listens AP file

Blasphemy laws have intensified in Pakistan over the last few decades. Making derogatory remarks against an Islamic person became punishable by imprisonment in 1980 while the death penalty was introduced for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad in 1986.

The international advocacy group Coalition Against Misuse of the Blasphemy Laws says the law is often abused in personal disputes and Christians in Pakistan are disproportionately affected.

Amnesty International has called the laws a violation to the rights of life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and the freedom of opinion and expression in a 2016 report.

The report also outlined how Bibi's conviction illustrated the public's support of the law. Former governor of the Punjab province Salman Taseer was assassinated by his own bodyguard in 2011 for defending Bibi and speaking out against the laws.

The bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, became a national hero for defending the blasphemy law and had a mosque named after him. Qadri was convicted for the governor's death and executed in 2016, but the sentence sparked violent protests in the capital of Islamabad.

There have been numerous other cases of mob violence and vigilantism related to the blasphemy laws.

Last year, a 23-year-old student at Abdul Wali Khan University was lynched by his peers after being accused of blasphemy. Students, teachers and some university officials had been charged for his death and the courts sentenced one person to death earlier this year while 30 others were handed out prison terms.

Bibi is the first woman to be handed a death sentence for committing blasphemy.

Bibi appealed the conviction and her lawyers have argued she was falsely accused. Her first appeal was dismissed by a lower court in 2014, and the Supreme Court stayed her execution in 2015.

Mushtaq Yusufzai reported from Peshawar; Linda Givetash from London.