Pakistan’s Supreme Court in a landmark verdict on Wednesday overturned the conviction of a Christian woman facing execution for blasphemy, sparking protests in the country.
Asia Bibi, a 47-year-old mother of four, was convicted in 2010 after being accused of insulting Islam in a row with her neighbours. She always maintained her innocence, but has spent most of the past eight years in solitary confinement. Her case has been deeply divisive in Pakistan where there is strong support for the controversial blasphemy laws.
The blasphemy laws were promulgated by former military dictator Ziaul Haq in 1980s. A person convicted under these laws is given death sentence.
The apex court, in a three-member bench led by chief justice Saqib Nisar, issued the verdict on Wednesday morning, three weeks after they had reached a decision. The delay followed threats by blasphemy campaigners to hold protests. “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,” Nisar said. He said Bibi could walk free from jail in Sheikhupura, near Lahore, immediately if not wanted in connection with any other case.
“Her conviction is set aside and she is to be relieved forthwith if not required in other charges,” said Nisar, reading out the judgment. “Tolerance is the basic principle of Islam,” the top judge read out, noting that the religion condemns injustice and oppression.
There was tight security in the capital, Islamabad. However, protests broke in the Islamic country following the verdict. Protestors blocked a highway linking Islamabad with garrison city of Rawalpindi and the old airport, Islamabad police said. The Red Zone in Islamabad, where the Supreme Court is located, has been sealed off by police, and paramilitary forces have been deployed to keep protesters away from the court.
Punjab, the country’s most populous province, was on high alert and its Home Department banned all kinds of public gatherings until November 10, according to police.
Tahreek-i-Labaik Pakistan, an Islamic political party, was leading the protest in Lahore where a large number of its activists gathered on the Mall Road. Security officials said protests were also being held in Karachi and other cities by groups linked with religious parties.
“Many parts of Karachi are paralysed due to the protests and most of the main roads have been shut down by the protesters who are burning tyres and pelting stones at vehicles,” a senior police official said.
Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal chief Fazlur Rehman denounced the verdict and alleged that it was influenced by unnamed “foreign powers”.
There were reports that mosques at different places asked the people to take to the streets against Bibi’s acquittal. Despite protests by extremists, the verdict was hailed on social media.
Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday fully backed the Supreme Court's decision in the Asia Bibi case, warning protesters against clashing with the State. “The way a small section reacted to it and the language that they used, I am forced to address you. The decision of the judges is according to the constitution and Pakistan’s constitution is according to the teachings of Islam,” he said
Bibi’s lawyer Saiful Mulook also told media that it was the “happiest day” of his life.
Kelsey Zorzi of ADF International, which promotes religious freedom, said: “Blasphemy laws criminalise the exercise of fundamental human rights, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Blasphemy laws directly violate international law. All people have the right to freely choose, and live out, their faith. We, therefore, urge all governments to uphold this right by ceasing enforcement and initiating repeal of their blasphemy laws.
Bibi was accused of committing blasphemy in 2009. She was convicted in 2010 by the trial court and her death sentence was maintained by the Lahore High Court in 2014. She appealed against the conviction to the Supreme Court, which for the first time heard the case in July 2015.
Bibi’s case gained prominence when former governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province Salman Taseer was killed in 2011 for supporting her and criticising the blasphemy laws.
A month after Taseer was killed, Pakistan’s religious minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who spoke out against the blasphemy law, was shot dead in Islamabad.
Critics say strict blasphemy laws have often been used to get revenge after personal disputes, and that convictions are based on thin evidence. Dozens of people have been charged under the laws. Though, Bibi is being released but there are fears that she might be at risk of being attacked by militants.
In 2012, around 14 people were killed and scores injured when violent protests broke out over an anti-Islam and blasphemous videos circulated on YouTube.
There are fewer than 4 million Christians in Pakistan out of a total population of 197 million. The majority population is Muslim, with Hindus the biggest religious minority.