ASIA BIBI, the Pakistani Christian woman imprisoned on death row after she was accused of blasphemy, has been acquitted by the Supreme Court in Pakistan.
The verdict was announced on Wednesday morning, eight years after Mrs Bibi was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad during an argument with her neighbours at a well (News, 19 November 2010).
The decision has already sparked protests in Pakistan by hardline Islamic fundamentalists.
The ruling by a three-judge panel stated that the prosecution had “categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt”. The evidence against Mrs Bibi was thin, and an alleged confession was clearly unsafe as it was supposedly produced after she had been attacked and beaten by an angry mob.
“Her conviction is set aside and she is to be relieved forthwith, if not required in other charges,” the chief justice, Saqib Nasir, said.
When reached by reporters from the AFP news agency on the phone, Mrs Bibi, who did not attend the hearing and remains at present in prison, said: “I can’t believe what I am hearing. Will I go out now? Will they let me out, really?”
The acquittal brings to an end a long legal dispute over the fate of the mother of four, whose ordeal began when her Muslim neighbours refused to drink water that she had drawn from a well, because, as a Christian, they saw her as unclean.
An argument ensued, and Mrs Bibi was accused of making offensive remarks against Muhammad: a crime punishable by death under Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws. Her case became a cause célèbre for human-rights organisations around the world and those supporting the persecuted Church.
The judgment, which overturned her conviction, notes that the 47-year-old’s first name, Asia, means “sinful” in Arabic. “But, in the circumstances of the present case, she appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘more sinned against than sinning’,” it concluded.
The judgment relies on Islamic practice and law. “Tolerance is the basic principle of Islam,” it begins. It then quotes the Qur’an to show that Islam teaches freedom of religion and “prohibits coercion in matters of faith and belief”.
The Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Tony Robinson, who chairs the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Pakistan Focus Group and has strong ties to the nation, said that he was delighted she had been acquitted and will soon be freed.
“Asia Bibi has been imprisoned since 2009 after a minor dispute with two of her neighbours. We have been praying for her and her family since then, especially as we heard reports about her health, which was a great cause for concern. Our concern now is for her safety and that of her family.”
The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Revd Susan Brown, said in a statement that her whole Church gave thanks that Mrs Bibi’s appeal had been upheld. “We urge the authorities in Pakistan to do all in their power to ensure the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family, her lawyers, and the judges.
“We note with sadness that protests have already erupted across Pakistan against the verdict, and urge people to pray for peace in a country that has such close and deep connections with Scotland.”
Mrs Brown said that four other Christians were currently under trial or appealing against convictions for blasphemy, and urged Pakistan to reform its law so that it could not be used to persecute religious minorities.
The organisation Release International welcomed the verdict. The chief executive, Paul Robinson, said: “Finally, humanity and common sense have triumphed over extremism.
“Pakistan must act to protect the lives of this mother, her family, and her lawyer. And Pakistan must take immediate action to repeal these notorious blasphemy laws, which are being used as an instrument of persecution against the country’s Christian minority.”
Neville Kyrke-Smith, of Aid to the Church in Need, said: “Today is like the dawn of new hope for oppressed minorities. It is important that justice is not just seen to be done, but is done.”
The chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, Wilson Chowdhry, said: “Asia Bibi has endured almost ten years of brutal incarceration in isolation. The world has watched her suffer, but today, thanks to the grace of God, today the world rejoices.
“Her freedom can hardly be called justice, and nothing will ever compensate her for her lost years. For now, we can only pray that she is given the counselling and support she needs to recover and restore her place in society — this will of course be in a nation far away from Pakistan, where it is untenable for her to remain.”
The case of the Christian mother has become a political and religious flashpoint in Pakistan. One prominent politician who supported Mrs Bibi and criticised the blasphemy laws —the governor of Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer — was murdered by his bodyguard in 2011 (News, 7 January 2011). Another, the Minister for Religious Minorities, Shabaz Bhatti, was also killed in the same year (News, 2 March 2011).
The killer of Mr Taseer was convicted and executed, but has become a cult hero among some Pakistani Muslims, who have built a large shrine in his honour outside Islamabad. A political party to preserve the country’s blasphemy laws was created in the aftermath, and garnered about two million votes in this year’s general election.
Supporters of the party have already blocked roads in Lahore and Karachi and thrown stones at the police in protest at the Supreme Court’s decision. The leader of the fundamentalist movement, Afzal Qadri, has said that the three judges must themselves now be killed for their actions.
Security forces have been deployed across the capital, Islamabad, to protect the court and other official buildings from the expected violent backlash to the decision.