Christian Woman Acquitted Over Death Penalty Blasphemy Charge
By Sofy Robertson
A Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan eight years ago on blasphemy charges has been acquitted by the country’s Supreme Court.
Asia Bibi’s release was ordered yesterday by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar in a landmark ruling which has ignited mass protests and has the potential to incite violence by extremist Islamists.
For security reasons, Bibi had been held at an undisclosed location and is expected to leave the country following the ruling.
Bibi, a farm labourer from Pakistan’s tiny Christian minority, was charged in 2009. She went to fetch a jug of water from a well for herself and the Muslim women working in the fields. She took a sip, before passing the water on. Two Muslim women refused to drink from the container and a few days later, a mob accused her of blasphemy.
The charges stemmed from Bibi’s neighbours’ anger that an “unclean” Christian had shared their drinking vessel. Her fellow fruit-pickers demanded that she convert to Islam. Bibi refused. Following this, a mob accused her of insulting the prophet Muhammad; an offence punishable by death in Pakistan.
Bibi was later convicted on the charge of blasphemy and sentenced to death by hanging.
Critics of the blasphemy law have said it is used to settle personal scores or to attack minority communities. Bibi’s case was closely followed internationally amid concern for Pakistan’s religious minorities, who have frequently come under attack by extremists in recent years.
The case gained widespread attention in Pakistan with violent incidents occurring as a reaction to those that defended Bibi.
Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was shot and killed by one of his guards in 2011 for defending Bibi and criticising the misuse of the blasphemy law. Fellow politician, Shahbaz Bhatti, also spoke out about Bibi’s conviction and was killed in the same year by extremists.
Taseer’s assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, has been celebrated as a martyr by hard-liners since he was hanged for the killing, with hundreds visiting a shrine set up for him near the capital, Islamabad, every day.
Before the verdict of Bibi’s appeal, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a hard-line cleric who has brought tens of thousands of people into the streets for past rallies, called on his supporters to gather in all major cities to protest if Bibi was released.
Following the ruling, hundreds of Islamists blocked a main road linking the city of Rawalpindi with Islamabad.
Islamists have gathered in other major cities in Pakistan to protest Bibi’s release and several arrests have been made by the police after clashes.
Conservative Muslim groups, including far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) have incited violence against the judges who carried out the ruling, including posting threats on Twitter.
Many believed that Bibi’s long detention and possible hanging had come to symbolise the inability of the state to stand up to religious bigotry.
However, many Pakistanis have expressed religious Muslim sentiments in support of the verdict. Many feel the decision is more in-keeping with Islamic principles of justice than the original death penalty verdict.
Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, warned his citizens against potential threats to public order in a televised speech which was later Tweeted:
“It is our duty to protect property, to keep roads open & to keep people safe. The state will then use its power if you so as much even decide to incite any kind of violence at a time when the whole country is trying to rise together. Don’t force us into taking action.”
Many Pakistanis praised the PM’s speech, calling it a step forward in the face of religious dogma and violence.
After the verdict, Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, said:
“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.”
In such a religiously conservative country, this Supreme Court ruling bears huge significance and gives many Pakistanis hope that this step could become the first of many in a journey to stand up to religious bigotry.
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