Free to leave: Pakistan’s top court upholds acquittal of Christian woman accused of blasphemy

Free to leave: Pakistan’s top court upholds acquittal of Christian woman accused of blasphemy
Pakistan’s highest court has rejected appeals by Islamists to overturn Asia Bibi’s acquittal on charges of blasphemy, signalling the end of her 8 years on death row, and the renewal of religious unrest.

Based on merit, this petition is dismissed,” Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa declared in the Islamabad court on Tuesday, adding somberly that “the image of Islam” the case has presented to the world gives him “much grief and sorrow.

The decision has already led to public outcry among Pakistan’s conservative Muslims, many of whom have demanded Bibi’s death since her arrest.

Bibi was first convicted of making negative comments about Islam in 2010. Prosecutors claimed she was motivated by her neighbor’s refusal to share water with her as a non-Muslim. Despite denying the accusations, the Christian farmworker was sentenced to death by hanging under Pakistan’s much scrutinized blasphemy law, which critics claim targets religious minorities.

When her conviction was first overturned in October last year, protests organized by religious hardliners sprung up across the country. Demonstrators called for the woman’s death and demanded that the government banned her from leaving the country.

Bibi has been kept in an undisclosed location since she was freed in October in light of numerous death threats and high-price bounties placed on her by radical clerics. Her family was also forced to flee to Canada in fear of reprisal.

The court’s decision to uphold the acquittal, however, means she will finally be able to leave the country. Bibi’s lawyer, Saiful Malook, told reporters outside the court that his client would be able to leave Pakistan immediately, perhaps even the same night.

Since the court dismissed the Islamists’ challenge to their decision, new waves of protests have broken out. Hardline religious leaders, such as Shafeeq Ameeni of the anti-blasphemy Tehreek-e Labaik movement, warned the court in advance that they would not tolerate the “blasphemer” seeing freedom, even adding that supreme court judges themselves would be added to the ‘kill-on-sight list’ over their decision.

Bibi’s case made international headlines, drawing the attention of Amnesty International, numerous world leaders and not one, but two popes. Her case has highlighted the struggle of Pakistan’s Christian minority, and the country’s ongoing struggle between religious and civil law.

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In November, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country was in talks with Pakistan about granting Bibi asylum. Australia, Spain and France are also thought to have offered sanctuary.

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