Islamabad: The Supreme Court of Pakistan on Tuesday took up a petition seeking review of the top court’s October 31, 2018 verdict of acquitting Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who spent eight years on death row in a blasphemy case.

Petitioner Qari Muhammad Salaam’s lawyer Ghulam Ikram presented his arguments before a three-member bench, headed by Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and comprising Justice Qazi Faez Isa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel. The lawyer demanded that a larger bench be made for the review petition, saying it should inlcude Islamic scholars and ulama.

“How is this a matter of religion?” asked the CJP. “Has the verdict not been given on merit?”

“The verdict was given on the basis of testimony; does Islam say that one should be punished even if they are found not guilty?

“Prove to us what [you believe] is wrong with the verdict,” said Chief Justice Khosa.

Tight security

A day earlier on Monday, the capital administration made stringent security arrangements, including the deployment of paramilitary troops in Islamabad’s sensitive areas.

In a letter written to the capital chief commissioner’s office, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, the Islamabad district magistrate sought the deployment of Pakistan Rangers personnel in the city “to avoid any untoward incident” during the hearing of a “sensitive case” on January 29.

The magistrate suggested that the Rangers authorities be approached with the request to deploy quick response forces (QRFs) of the paramilitary force in aid of the civil administration to bolster the capital’s security.

The review petition filed by Qari Muhammad Salaam pleads the apex court to maintain the capital punishment awarded by the trial court to Aasia Bibi.

Qari Salaam is a prayer leader of a mosque who lives in a village in Nankana Sahib tehsil and had lodged the FIR about the alleged blasphemy incident.

On Oct 31 last year, a three-judge SC bench had reversed the judgements of the Lahore High Court (LHC) and the trial court thus setting aside the conviction and death sentence awarded to Aasia Bibi, who had been accused of committing blasphemy during an argument with a Muslim woman in Sheikhupura in June 2009.

“Keeping in mind the evidence produced by the prosecution against the alleged blasphemy committed by the appellant, the prosecution has categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt,” the then chief justice Mian Saqib Nisar had written in the detailed judgment.

Justice Khosa, in his note, had said: “Blasphemy is a serious offence but the insult of the appellant’s religion and religious sensibilities by the complainant party and then mixing truth with falsehood in the name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) was also not short of being blasphemous.”

After her release from Multan’s women prison on November 7, Aasia Bibi was flown to Islamabad onboard a special aircraft. She was then taken to an undisclosed place amid tight security. Authorities have remained tight-lipped about her movement and whereabouts for security reasons.

Her lawyer, Saiful Malook, who had received death threats and fled the country after Bibi’s acquittal, returned to Islamabad to attend Tuesday’s hearing.

The petitioners “have no case against my client, I am sure of that”, Malook told The Associated Press on Monday. He said he has asked authorities to provide him with personal security.

TLP threatens protests

Meanwhile, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which had led three-day-long mass protests against Bibi’s acquittal in November, on Monday night rejected the SC bench formed to hear the review petition and threatened a protest movement if Bibi is given “judicial relief”.

Most of the top TLP leadership, including its chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi, is presently imprisoned in the wake of a massive crackdown launched by law enforcement agencies against the religiopolitical group.

In a video message, TLP’s central acting emir Shafiq Amini claimed that the government had promised them that a larger bench including Sharia court judges would be formed to hear the review petition against Bibi’s acquittal. He demanded that a larger bench be formed after dissolving the current bench.

Asking TLP workers to “be prepared”, Amini said: “No one should expect a compromise from our end”.

The TLP had called off its protests last year after reaching an agreement with the government — the foremost condition of which was the placement of Bibi’s name on the Exit Control List. The government, however, had only agreed to “initiate the legal process” to place her name on the list, while also agreeing that it would not oppose any review petitions being filed against the SC judgement.