Asia Bibi: Pakistan court acquits Christian woman on death row for blasphemy

Ruling sparks protests around the country with hardliners opposed to Asia Bibi's release

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A Christian woman kept on death row in Pakistan for nearly a decade has been freed after her conviction for blasphemy was overturned by the country's highest court.

Asia Bibi was acquitted of defaming the Prophet Mohammed in a case which has outraged Christians worldwide and become a source of deep division inside Pakistan.

The ruling by Pakistan's Chief Justice Saqib Nisar sparked protests from hardline Islamist parties, who had threatened to paralyse the country if Ms Bibi was spared.

Demonstrations blocking major roads in the country were spreading by mid-afternoon, paralysing parts of Islamabad, Lahore and other cities. Supporters of Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), which was founded to support blasphemy laws were among the protests.

Her case became a symbol of the growing extremism within the country after two politicians who tried to help her were assassinated. Now the ruling has brought threats against the judge behind the ruling.

"They all three deserve to be killed. Either their security should kill them, their driver kill them, or their cook kill them," TLP co-founder Muhammad Afzal Qadri told a protest in Lahore. "Whoever, who has got any access to them, kill them before the evening."

He also called for the ouster of the new government of Prime Minister Imran Khan and for army officers to rise up against powerful military chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, who he said "should be sacked from the army".

Extra police were called in to guard government buildings in the capital, Islamabad, and to protect the residents of Christian neighbourhoods.

By late afternoon, two other religious movements, including one headed by Hafiz Saeed, who has a $10 million US bounty on his head for his alleged involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, announced that they would also join the protests.

Feelings surrounding her case are running so high, that the mother-of-four is expected to have to leave the country and apply for asylum overseas almost immediately.

Western embassies are understood to have been planning for weeks to help her out in the event of her acquittal.


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"The appeal is allowed. She has been acquitted. The judgement of high court as well as trial court is reversed. Her conviction is set aside," said Justice Nisar in the ruling.

Ms Bibi's ordeal began in 2009, when she was working in a field and was asked to fetch water. Muslim women working alongside her allegedly objected, saying that as a non-Muslim she was unfit to touch the water bowl.

The women complained to a local cleric and accused her of blasphemy, a charge punishable by death. Ms Bibi denied blasphemy, but was sentenced to hang.

The three-member appeal panel of Supreme Court justices questioned the case against her, which supporters had always said was fabricated through malice.

Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, considered Pakistan's top expert in criminal law, listed flaws in the proceedings.

"I don't see any derogatory remarks vis-a-vis the holy Koran as per the FIR," added Justice Nisar, referring to the initial complaint filed in the case.

Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, a hardline religious party, march during a protest in Lahore on October 19, 2018, demanding for hanging to a blasphemy convict Christian woman Asia Bibi, who is on death row. The family of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother who faces becoming the first person to be executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, said they hoped the Supreme Court would free her. But in any case they feared for their future living in Pakistan under the blasphemy laws, they told AFP. Bibi, who has been on death row since 2010, is at the centre of the high-profile case that has divided Pakistan and drawn prayers from the Vatican.
Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, a hardline religious party, march during a protest in Lahore. AFP

One of Ms Bibi’s daughters, Eisham Ashiq, described her mother's acquittal as “the most wonderful moment in my life”.

“I want to hug my mother and then celebrate with my family. I am grateful to God for listening to our prayers,” she said in a statement.

The verdict was welcomed by human rights groups though.

“There is every reason to be relieved at Asia Bibi's acquittal,” said the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

“And every reason to introspect yet again how and why the blasphemy laws are open to being so easily used to settle personal grievances.”

The long-running case sparked international condemnation and Pope Benedict XVI called for her release in 2010.

According to a 2018 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, around 40 people are believed to be on death row or serving a life sentence in Pakistan for blasphemy.

Accusations of blasphemy are so charged that others have been lynched or burned in ovens by street mobs.

Rights groups say anti-blasphemy legislation has been used to justify censorship, persecution, and even murder.

The issue has also become a political weapon, with accusations of being soft on blasphemy used to silence or smear critics.

In 2011, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan's most populous province Punjab, was assassinated by his own bodyguard after calling for Ms Bibi's release and reform of blasphemy laws.

His killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was executed in 2016 and has been feted as a hero by hardliners.

Yet politicians, including new prime minister Imran Khan, invoked blasphemy during a general election this summer and have vowed to defend the laws.

The ultra-Islamist Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party, which makes punishing blasphemy its main campaign rallying cry, earlier this month warned the court against any "concession or softness" for Ms Bibi.

"If there is any attempt to hand her over to a foreign country, there will be terrible consequences," TLP said in a statement before Wednesday's ruling.