Pakistan’s Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam and ordered her freed.
- Asia Bibi was jailed after neighbours accused her of blasphemy
- A political party dedicated to tough blasphemy laws has responded by blocking roads around cities
- Human rights groups have praised the Pakistan judiciary for protecting minorities
Asia Bibi, a mother of four, has been living on death row since 2010 when she became the first woman to be sentenced to death by hanging under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
The charges against her date back to a hot day in 2009 when she went to get water for her and her fellow farmworkers. Two Muslim women refused to drink from a container used by a Christian.
A few days later, a mob accused her of blasphemy. She was convicted and sentenced to death.
Her case has outraged Christians worldwide and been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help Ms Bibi were assassinated.
Supporters of Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), which was founded to support Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, immediately condemned the ruling and blocked roads in Karachi, the country’s largest city, and in the city of Lahore.
Chief Justice Saqib Nasir, who headed a special three-person bench set up for the appeal, cited the Koran in his ruling, writing “tolerance is the basic principle of Islam” and noting the religion condemns injustice and oppression.
Supporters of a Pakistani religious group chant slogans during a protest after the court decision. (AP: Anjum Naveed)
Ms Bibi’s husband Ashiq Masih hailed Wednesday’s verdict.
“I am very happy. My children are very happy. We are grateful to God. We are grateful to the judges for giving us justice. We knew that she is innocent,” he said.
Ms Bibi’s lawyer Saiful Mulook told Reuters: “It is great news for Pakistan and rest of the world. Asia Bibi has finally been served justice.”
Verdict a crucible for Pakistan
Ms Bibi’s case has been high on the agenda of religious hardliners in Pakistan, many of whom are fiercely opposed to her release.
Christians make up only about 2 per cent of Pakistan’s population but are sometimes discriminated against.
In November, TLP staged a crippling blockade of the capital, Islamabad, after small changes to a religious oath, which it claims was tantamount to blasphemy.
Seven people were killed and more than 200 were wounded in clashes with the police, and TLP’s supporters only dispersed after striking a deal with the military.
Pakistani lawyers who are contesting the case against Ms Bibi speak to media outside the Supreme Court. ((AP Photo/Anjum Naveed))
Insulting Islam’s prophet is punishable by death under Pakistani law, and blasphemy accusations stir such emotions they are almost impossible to defend against.
Dozens have been killed following blasphemy claims, sometimes by mobs of men.
Rights groups say the blasphemy law is exploited by religious extremists as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.
The law does not clearly define blasphemy and evidence might not be reproduced in court for fear of committing a fresh offence.
Ms Bibi’s representatives have claimed she was involved in a dispute with her neighbours and her accusers had contradicted themselves.
Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director for Amnesty International, described the verdict as a landmark decision.
“The message must go out that the blasphemy laws will no longer be used to persecute the country’s most vulnerable minorities,” he said.