Supreme Court acquits Asia Bibi, orders immediate release

Asia Bibi a Christian woman accused of blasphemy in June 2009 and sentenced to death a year later. ─ Reuters  File

Asia Bibi a Christian woman accused of blasphemy in June 2009 and sentenced to death a year later. ─ Reuters File

Human rights activists have been working around the clock for the last several years to appeal the Pakistani court's death sentence.

Supporters of the Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan party chant slogans as they set ablaze tyres to block the road after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, during a protest in Karachi, Pakistan October 31, 2018.

During the appeal hearing on Oct 8, a three-member panel of Supreme Court justices appeared to question the case against her, with Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, considered Pakistan's top expert in criminal law, listing flaws in the proceedings.

"The judgement of the High Court and that of the trial court is reversed", said Chief Justice Saqib Nasar, as he ordered Bibi's release unless she is required on any other charges. She has been acquitted.

No Pakistani Christian has been held on blasphemy charges longer than Bibi.

Bibi was condemned for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbours objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim. The law does not clearly define blasphemy and evidence might not be reproduced in court for fear of committing a fresh offence.

She had then challenged the LHC verdict in the Supreme Court, which stayed her execution in July 2015 and admitted her appeal for hearing. Her Muslim colleagues accused her of contaminating the water because she was a Christian.

The case came into the spotlight a few months after Bibi's conviction, when the then governor of central Punjab province Salman Taseer was killed by one of his police guards for defending her and calling for changes in the law to stop its misuse.

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".

Asia Bibi admitted to exchanging "hot words" with her neighbours but has always maintained she said nothing blasphemous, and never confessed.

Bibi's husband also hailed the verdict.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws and the the capital punishment for breaking them has drawn concern from worldwide rights organizations, "not least because they are sometimes misused to settle feuds, grab land, or persecute religious minorities by making false allegations", NPR's Phillip Reeves has reported. The Lahore High Court (LHC) had upheld her conviction and confirmed her death sentence in October 2014. His assassin Mumtaz Qadri was executed in 2016 after the court found him guilty of murder.

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