The Supreme Court of Pakistan on Wednesday acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row for alleged blasphemy. This was her final legal appeal before execution.
Ms. Bibi was falsely accused of committing blasphemy in 2009. In 2010, a trial court sentenced her to death. In 2014, the Lahore High Court upheld the trial court’s verdict.
A three-member bench headed by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel finally overturned the conviction. yesterday The ruling said: “Keeping in mind the evidence produced by the prosecution against the alleged blasphemy committed by the appellant, the prosecution has categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.”
Prime Minister Imran Khan took a clear and unequivocal stand on the verdict by addressing the nation in a televised speech on Wednesday evening. He warned those trying to create mischief and inciting violence against the judges, the Army chief and the government that the state knows how to deal with such troublemakers.
The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), an Islamist political party, took to the streets in several cities against the verdict. Its leaders issued religious edicts against the three judges who acquitted Bibi and said they “deserve death”.
Pakistan’s blasphemy law prescribes the death sentence for anyone convicted of insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammed. Ms. Bibi was accused of using vile words on Islam and the Prophet in an argument with her co-workers in 2009.
Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer who works for the Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Pakistan, said that the SC judgment is a significant milestone in Pakistan’s journey towards being an inclusive and modern democracy. “It is important now for the government to continue this momentum and push for a justice system which is equitable, fair and protects the most marginalised Pakistani citizens,” he said.
Amnesty International’s Deputy South Asia director, Omar Waraich, said that for the past eight years, Pakistan’s long-suffering minorities lived under a pall of fear. “Even the faintest accusation, free of facts or evidence, could have spelled a death sentence. That fear was felt across the state, too, which had effectively conceded defeat.”
“Whenever there was a moment to push back against the forces of violent hatred, they backed down. We saw a Governor and a Minister killed,” he said referring to Punjab governor Salman Taseer and Minister of Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti.
“We then saw a Law Minister forced to resign while the Interior Minister survived an assassination attempt. Finally, the Supreme Court has taken a stand. Now, the rule of law must be upheld so that no one can take the law into their own hands.”
Taseer, an outspoken secularist, had supported Ms. Bibi’s release.
Ali Dayan Hasan, a senior policy adviser on human rights, said that while the Supreme Court verdict is welcome, “nothing can take away from the fact that it was primarily a miscarriage of justice and egregious judicial overreach that resulted in Asia Bibi’s decade-long incarceration and suffering”.
He recalled how the Lahore High Court, back in 2010, had prohibited then President Asif Ali Zardari from using his absolute power of pardon in Ms. Bibi’s case.
“It was a prohibition of an executive action that had in fact not yet taken place. There is no precedent for this in Pakistani law.”
Chairman of the Senate’s Functional Committee on Human Rights Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar said the courts have given a landmark judgment in Aasia Bibi’s case despite threats.
“It is indeed remarkable and we stand with the Supreme Court. The state must not abrogate its responsibility and must not bow before extremist forces. Asia Bibi’s case is a clear example of how extremist forces misuse the name of Islam.”
He added: “If we want to save Pakistan from going down the path of bigotry, we must stop the misuse of religion.”
The Asia Bibi episode - a timeline
June 2009 : Bibi is accused of committing blasphemy. Prosecution claims that Bibi made three “defamatory and sarcastic” statements about the Prophet on June 14, 2009 during an argument with three Muslim women
November 2010: Trial court convicts Bibi and sentences her to death. She has been in a prison in Multan since then.
January 2011: Punjab Governor Salman Taseer is assassinated by Mumtaz Qadri, a member of his security team for defending Bibi and for his opposition to the blasphemy law.
Qadri's act is celebrated by hardliners.
March 2011: Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in the Cabinet, is shot dead by gunmen who ambush his car near his residence in Islamabad.
October 2011: Qadri is found guilty and sentenced to death.
2013: Bibi, with help from French journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet, come up with a memoir titled Blasphemy A Memoir: Sentenced to Death over a Cup of Water
October 2014: Lahore High Court upholds Bibi's conviction and confirms her death sentence
July 2015: Supreme Court admits her appeal, suspends death sentence for the duration of the appeals process
February 2016: Qadri is hanged, leading to violent protests
October 31: SC acquits Bibi of allegations