Pakistan’s Supreme Court upheld the acquittal of a Christian woman on blasphemy charges Tuesday, clearing the way for her to flee Pakistan and seek asylum in the West.
Asia Bibi, a farm laborer and mother-of-five from Punjab province, had spent eight years on death row since she was found guilty of insulting the Prophet Muhammad during an argument with Muslim neighbours in 2009.
In October, the Supreme Court acquitted her, finding no evidence of Bibi’s wrongdoing, and saying her accusers had “no regard for the truth.”
But Islamist hardliners from Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), a party formed to demand strict punishments for blasphemy, reacted with fury to the ruling, holding protests across the country calling for the deaths of Bibi and the judges who acquitted her.
To defuse the tensions, Pakistan’s government struck a deal with Tehreek-e-Labaik allowing it to petition against the acquittal. However, their appeal was rejected Tuesday.
“You could not point out a single mistake in the Supreme Court's verdict,” said Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa in upholding the acquittal. “The image of Islam we are showing to the world gives me much grief and sorrow.”
The ruling in what has become the country’s highest-profile blasphemy case sparked jubilant scenes at the courthouse in Islamabad. Bibi’s lawyer Saiful Mulook, who had returned for the hearing from the Netherlands, where he himself had fled amid threats from hardliners, suggested his client would soon leave the country.
“I think at this time she is here [in Pakistan] — but by tonight, I don’t know,” he told reporters.
He said fundamentalists had vowed “they would kill her despite the judgment of the Supreme Court. Therefore, I think she should leave the country.”
Two of Bibi’s daughters are already reportedly in Canada, which is a strong contender to grant her asylum after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed last year his government was in talks with Pakistani authorities about her plight.
Bibi, who was required to remain in Pakistan until the latest petition was considered, has been under state protection and moved from safe house to safe house amid the ongoing threats from extremists.
Tehreek-e Labaik, which had warned the court not to rule in Bibi’s favor, said through spokesman Zubair Rizvi it did not accept the decision and vowed to continue to agitate over the case.
But its leaders behind previous protests had been detained by security forces ahead of Tuesday’s ruling, and with tight security measures in place around Islamabad, no major protests had broken out Tuesday.
However, Islamist activists made further threats Tuesday that Bibi may continue to be at risk from extremists wherever she goes. “She deserves to be murdered according to Sharia. If she goes abroad, don’t Muslims live there? If she goes out of Pakistan … anybody can kill her there,” Islamabad-based Islamist Hafiz Ehtisham Ahmed told AFP.
Amnesty International’s South Asia campaigner Rimmel Mohydin said Bibi must now be now be free to reunite with her family and receive asylum abroad, while Pakistan’s government needed to resist further attempts by hardliners to intimidate the Supreme Court.
“They have a duty to protect against threats of violence to harm religious minorities or the lives of judges or other government officials,” said Mohydin.
“This shameful delay in enforcing Asia Bibi’s rights only reinforces the need for the Pakistani government to repeal the blasphemy laws as soon as possible, as well as other laws that discriminate against religious minorities and put their lives in danger.”
The case has shone a spotlight on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, drawing international support for Bibi from a broad coalition of human rights groups, atheists and Christians — including Pope Francis, who described Bibi as a martyr when meeting her family at the Vatican last year.
Critics say the laws enable accusers to settle personal vendettas with scant evidence, or target minorities, and point to the chilling effect Islamist and mob violence can have on defenders of those accused.
Religious minorities comprise only about 3 percent of Pakistan’s population, but they account for more than half the country’s alleged blasphemy cases.
Cover image: Pakistani protesters shout slogans against Asia Bibi, a Christian woman facing death sentence for blasphemy, at a protest in Karachi on October 13, 2016. (ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images)