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Pakistan acquits Christian woman Bibi in landmark blasphemy case

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Pakistan’s Supreme Court has acquitted a Christian woman convicted for blasphemy, prompting sporadic protests by far-right groups that have been demanding her execution for years.

Aasia Bibi was cleared of all blasphemy charges and authorities were ordered to release her after nine years on death row, Cheif Justice Saqib Nisar announced in the capital, Islamabad, on Wednesday.

“This appeal is allowed. The judgements of the High Court, as well as the Trial Court, are reversed. Consequently, the conviction as also the sentence of death awarded to the appellant is set aside and she is acquitted of the charge,” Nisar told a packed courtroom.

Bibi, 53, a native of the central Pakistan village of Ithan Wali, was accused by two Muslim women of having insulted Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and the Quran during an argument sparked by their refusal to drink water from the same vessel as her in 2009.

She was convicted and sentenced to death by a trial court in November 2010, with the Lahore High Court upholding her conviction four years later.

Rights groups and Bibi’s lawyers, however, argued that there were numerous fair trial concerns in her case, one that became emblematic of such concerns in many cases under Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws.

Blasphemy against Islam and its Prophet is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where the crime can carry a compulsory death sentence.

Increasingly, blasphemy accusations have resulted in mob lynchings and extrajudicial murders. At least 74 people have been killed in violence related to blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera tally. Those killed include a provincial governor who stood up for Bibi when she was first accused in 2009.

On Wednesday, judges said they agreed that Bibi had not been tried fairly, noting “glaring and stark” contradictions in the prosecution’s evidence, and ordered her immediate release.

Justice Asif Khosa, writing in the full verdict, issued shortly after Wednesday’s announcement, said the truth had not been fully revealed during the trial.

“[There is] the irresistible and unfortunate impression that all those concerned in the case with providing evidence and conducting investigation had taken upon themselves not to speak the truth of at least not to divulge the whole truth. It is equally disturbing to note that the courts below had also, conveniently or otherwise, failed to advert to such contradictions and some downright falsehood.”

“Aasia has gotten justice at last,” Bibi’s lawyer Saif-ul-Malook told Al Jazeera shortly after the verdict was announced.

Amnesty International hailed Wednesday’s decision as a “landmark verdict.”

“For the past eight years, Aasia Bibi’s life languished in limbo. Despite her protest of innocence, and despite the lack of evidence against her, this case was used to rouse angry mobs, justify the assassinations of two senior officials, and intimidate the Pakistani state into capitulation.

“Justice has finally prevailed. The message must go out that the blasphemy laws will no longer be used to persecute the country’s most vulnerable minorities,” said Amnesty’s Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director.

There are still roughly 40 other people on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy in Pakistan, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

Safety concerns

The far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a political party and religious organisation led by firebrand Muslim leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi that rallies on the issue of blasphemy, has long called for Bibi to be executed, and called for protests across the country after the verdict was announced.

TLP leaders, including Rizvi, gathered outside government buildings in the eastern city of Lahore following the announcement of the verdict, while smaller groups of protesters began to block roads in the southern city of Karachi and various towns in Punjab province.

Following the verdict, TLP called for the deaths of the judges who overturned Bibi’s sentence, as well as the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government.

“The patron chief of TLP, Muhammad Afzal Qadri, has issued the edict that says the chief justice and all those who ordered the release of Asia [sic]deserve death,” party spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi said on Wednesday.

The lawyers for the complainant in the case, prayer leader Muhammad Salim, said they would decide whether to file a review petition after reading the detailed verdict.

“We were hopeful that we would get the same decision as the lower courts,” Salim told Al Jazeera. “But the decision has gone against us and our expectations.”

TLP and its followers have often accused rights groups that work with those accused of blasphemy, and courts that have upheld appeals, of working under foreign influence. At rallies, the group’s followers chant: “There is only one punishment for blasphemy: for your head to be separated for your body!”

“We were expecting this decision, because the judges are bound in slavery,” said an angry Tahira Shaheen, one of Salim’s lawyers. “This is the slavery of the West, of which we have never been set free.”

Bibi’s family, and those of other people accused of blasphemy, have long faced death threats, and are forced to change their whereabouts often due to security concerns. They were not present in court on Wednesday.

“The government is not interested in my security,” said Malook, Bibi’s lawyer. “That I am alive now if only under Allah’s protection”.


Source: Al Jazeera


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