ASIA BIBI, the Pakistani Christian woman imprisoned on death row after she was accused of blasphemy, has had her acquittal upheld by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
The verdict was announced on Tuesday morning, more than 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 original sentence was overturned by a three-judge panel last November, sparking protests in Pakistan by hardline Islamic fundamentalists (News, 31 October 2018). The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, who has defended the country’s blasphemy laws, agreed to allow a petition against the decision.
It was submitted to Lahore Supreme Court by Qari Muhammad Salaam on behalf of the preacher Khadim Hussain Rizvi. The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Asif Saeed Khosa, told the court on Tuesday: “Based on merit, this petition is dismissed.”
Mrs Bibi, who is Roman Catholic and has five children, is now free to leave the country and seek asylum. Her two daughters are reportedly already in Canada, where Mrs Bibi was expected to travel within days of her release. It was reported on Wednesday that she remained under protective custody at an undisclosed location.
The head of advocacy for the charity Open Doors, Zoe Smith, said: “Asia and her family’s safety remains of paramount importance. Many Christians will still be praying for their safety.”
Mrs Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, who has been in hiding, had initially called on the UK and United States to offer her asylum (News, 16 November 2018). Her lawyer, Saif ul Malook, who fled Pakistan last year in fear for his life, and Christian campaign groups, had also appealed to Western countries. The Italian government was among those to accept.
Mr Malook told The Independent: “I was very much confident before the hearing that this review petition would not be accepted.”
Several Christian charities, including Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Aid to the Church in Need, have renewed calls to protect Mrs Bibi, whose life has been threatened, in the wake of the ruling.
Release International urged the courts to review a further 218 cases of Christians who were imprisoned under blasphemy laws in the country, and to protect the Christian minority, and supporters, in Pakistan.
The chief executive, Paul Robinson, said: “We are delighted that the Supreme Court has stood firm over its principled and courageous decision to throw out the false blasphemy charges against Asia Bibi. Anything else would have been giving in to extremism and handing Pakistan over to mob rule.”
More than 70 people accused of blasphemy have reportedly been killed by mobs since 1990. Mr Robinson continued: “Accusations of blasphemy can be malicious and built on lies, simply to settle scores. These blasphemy cases — and the blasphemy law itself — must now come under review.”
The chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, Wilson Chowdhry, agreed that there was more work to be done to protect Christians: “Asia Bibi has always been innocent, and it is a blight on Pakistan that it took almost ten years to come to this decision to free her. Her freedom is a massive step in the advancement of equality and justice in Pakistan. . . [Its] draconian blasphemy laws must be abrogated speedily to prevent this ever happening again.”
Both groups renewed calls to protect the Christian community and critics of the blasphemy laws. The governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, who supported Mrs Bibi and was critical of the laws, was murdered by his bodyguard in 2011 (News, 7 January 2011). The Minister for Religious Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also killed in the same year (News, 2 March 2011).