The Pakistani Supreme Court yesterday freed a Christian woman from a death sentence for blasphemy against Islam and overturned her conviction, sparking angry protests and death threats from an ultra-religious party and cheers from human rights advocates.
Asia Bibi, a mother of four, had been living on death row since 2010, when she became the first woman to be sentenced to death by hanging under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws, which critics say are too harsh and often misused.
She was condemned for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim. Bibi has always denied blasphemy.
The case outraged Christians worldwide and has been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help Bibi were assassinated.
Chief Justice Saqib Nasir, who headed a special three-person bench set up for the appeal, cited the Koran in his ruling, writing “Tolerance is the basic principle of Islam,” and noting the religion condemns injustice and oppression.
Bibi appeared to be in state of disbelief after hearing that Nisar had quashed her conviction.
Photo: EPA-EFE / Bibi family handout
“I can’t believe what I am hearing, will I go out now? Will they let me out, really?” Bibi told Agence France-Presse by telephone from prison after the ruling. “I just don’t know what to say, I am very happy, I can’t believe it.”
Supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), which was founded to support blasphemy laws, immediately condemned the ruling and blocked roads in major cities, pelting police with stones in Lahore.
The TLP’s leadership called for the death of Nasif and two other judges on the panel.
“The patron-in-chief of TLP, Muhammad Afzal Qadri, has issued the edict that says the chief justice and all those who ordered the release of Asia deserve death,” party spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi said.
The party also called for the ouster of the new government of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.
The TLP was founded out of a movement supporting a bodyguard who assassinated Lahore provincial governor Salman Taseer for advocating for Bibi in 2011. Federal minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was also killed after calling for her release.
Bibi’s lawyer yesterday called the court ruling “great news” for Pakistan.
“Asia Bibi has finally been served justice,” Saiful Mulook said. “Pakistan’s Supreme Court must be appreciated that it upheld the law of the land and didn’t succumb to any pressure.”
Street protests and blockades of major roads were spreading by mid-afternoon, paralyzing parts of Islamabad, Lahore and other cities.
Some schools in Islamabad sent students home early and long lines of cars formed at gasoline stations as residents worried about prolonged protests.
Insulting Islam’s prophet is punishable by death under Pakistani law and blasphemy accusations stir such emotions that they are almost impossible to defend against.
Dozens have been killed following blasphemy claims, sometimes by mobs of men.
Rights groups say the blasphemy law is exploited by religious extremists as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores. The law does not clearly define blasphemy and evidence might not be reproduced in court for fear of committing a fresh offence.
Bibi’s representatives have claimed she was involved in a dispute with her neighbors and that her accusers had contradicted themselves.
Christians make up only about 2 percent of Pakistan’s population and are sometimes discriminated against.
“This is a landmark verdict. For the past eight years, Asia Bibi’s life languished in limbo,” said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director for Amnesty International.
“The message must go out that the blasphemy laws will no longer be used to persecute the country’s most vulnerable minorities,” he said.
Additional reporting by AFP
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