Pakistan prepares for violent protests over Asia Bibi acquittal

Hardliners called on supporters to rail against the verdict that will allow the Christian woman to leave the country

Pakistani police officers arrest a man at a protest against the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was facing blasphemy charges, in Lahore, Pakistan, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Pakistan's top court on Tuesday upheld its acquittal of Bibi. Radical Islamists protesters were stymied by sweeping arrests and the deployment of a small army of police and paramilitary Rangers outside the Supreme Court in the capital Islamabad. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)
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Pakistan was on Wednesday braced for violent protests after religious hardliners called supporters onto the streets to protest the acquittal of Asia Bibi.

The Christian farm labourer remained hidden under government protection after the Supreme Court upheld her release earlier in the week, but she is expected to depart the country imminently.

The court decision was met with anger from the ultra-conservative Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) party which has led previous protests calling for the execution of the mother-of-five.

“We cannot compromise on the honour of the Prophet," the group said in a statement released late Tuesday.

"Muslims, today is the time, and if you don't wake up today ... then wait for your death and your tears, because then you and your generations will be weeping."

Protests after Mrs Bibi's October acquittal paralysed the country, but it was not clear if the latest call to the streets would have the same effect.

Much of the TLP leadership remains in police custody after last year's disruption and police also reportedly tried to pre-empt more trouble with a round up of religious activists on Tuesday night.

Rawalpindi police were reported to have arrested up to 55 people, including TLP members.

Police on Wednesday appeared to be taking no chances and gathered at a junction between Islamabad and Rawalpindi which has was a rallying point for protests and sit-ins by hardliners in previous showdowns with the government.

There were also reports of small demonstrations in Punjab and Sindh provinces.

Chief Justice Asif Khosa on Tuesday dismissed a TLP-backed petition to overturn Mrs Bibi's October acquittal. In a scathing conclusion, he accused the prosecution witnesses of perjury and suggested they would have been jailed in any less sensitive case. He also decried the protests which met Mrs Bibi's acquittal in October.

"Is this the face of Islam that we want to show to the world?" he asked.

Ghulam Mustafa, counsel for the TLP petition in court said after the decision that they had no more legal options.

He said: “We wanted relief and wanted to restore her sentence but the court dismissed our review petition. This was our last legal battle. There is one more court which is above these all court and that is Allah’s court and we will get justice there.”

Mrs Bibi was quoted on Tuesday as saying that she wanted to hug her daughters soon, strengthening speculation that she will be heading to Canada. Her daughters flew to the country in December and Ottawa is a leading contender to give the whole family asylum.

“Asia Bibi must finally get her freedom and an end to her ordeal,” Amnesty International said.

“After nine years behind bars for a crime she didn’t commit, it is difficult to see this long overdue verdict as justice. But she should now be free to reunite with her family and seek safety in a country of her choice.”