Pakistan acquits Christian woman Bibi in iconic blasphemy case

Asia Bibi a Christian Pakistani woman who was due to be hanged for blasphemy before her acquittal by the Supreme Court Lahore October 31. /TWITTER

Asia Bibi a Christian Pakistani woman who was due to be hanged for blasphemy before her acquittal by the Supreme Court Lahore October 31. /TWITTER

Pakistan's top court on Wednesday acquitted a Christian woman who was sentenced to death in 2010 on blasphemy charges, a landmark ruling that could ignite mass protests or violence by hard-line Islamists.

"....this appeal is allowed".

A trial court had convicted Aasia Bibi and sentenced her to death. "The conviction and the sentence of death [are overturned]", said chief justice Saqib Nisar while announcing the verdict. The court ordered the woman's release on the condition that she is not wanted for any other charges.

On Oct 13 this year, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, a religio-political party headed by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, threatened to "paralyse the country within hours if the Supreme Court sets Asia Bibi free".

Given the probing questions from the Justices during arguments on appeal and Pakistan's history of never executing a death sentence in a blasphemy case, the only reason for the Supreme Court to uphold Asia's conviction would be the extreme pressure from Islamic groups that has now engulfed the country, including threats against the Justices. "This is just hate against Christians, who are considered impure", he said. We are grateful to the judges for giving us justice.

Approximately 40 people are believed to be on death row or serving a life sentence in Pakistan for blasphemy, according to a 2018 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

But the verdict will anger those opposed to any change to the blasphemy law in Pakistan, which carries a mandatory death penalty.

Asia Bibi was accused of insulting Prophet Muhammad during an argument with a group of women in her neighbourhood near Lahore in 2009.

The trial of Bibi, who is an illiterate mother of five, has become a test case for Pakistan's commitment to protect its minorities, which have born the brunt of blasphemy accusations.

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The matter was decided by a three-judge bench, which had reserved its verdict on October 8.

The following day, a much larger crowd dragged her to a village mullah, who told her had to either convert to Islam or die.

Bibi's supporters maintain her innocence and insist it was a personal dispute, and the Vatican has called for her release. Muslim radicals assassinated former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Shabbaz Bhatti in 2011. The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, has been celebrated as a martyr by hard-liners since he was hanged for the killing, with millions visiting a shrine set up for him near Islamabad.

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