A Christian woman who spent eight years on death row in Pakistan on blasphemy charges has been acquitted — prompting street protests from Islamists furious at the verdict.
Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar cited the Quran in his ruling, writing: “Tolerance is the basic principle of Islam,” and noting the religion condemns injustice and oppression.
Ms Bibi, who has been held at a secret location for security reasons, is now expected to leave the country.
Her husband, Ashiq Masih, hailed the verdict: “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.”
The workers had refused to drink from a bucket of water Asia Bibi had touched because she was not Muslim. At the time, Asia Bibi said the case was a matter of women who didn’t like her “taking revenge.”
She won her appeal against the conviction and subsequent death sentence on Wednesday.
Islamist movement Tehreek-e Labbaik (TLP) had previously vowed to take to the streets if Asia Bibi was released, and protests broke out in Islamabad and Lahore soon after the ruling was announced.
Within hours, the protests were large enough that government officials in the cities were urging people to stay inside and avoid adding to the chaos. Demonstrators blocked a motorway in Lahore and a road linking Islamabad and Rawalpindi has been closed off. Angry workers from the TLP have also staged sit-ins and chanted slogans against Pakistan officials and judges.
In response, police officials invoked Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which prevents the gathering of more than four people.
Prime Minister Condemns Protests
The country’s Prime Minister Imran Khan slammed the protests as a “disgusting response” to the top court’s decision.
“You are not aiding Islam by talking about killing judges and by killing our generals who have sacrificed so much for our country,” Khan said in defence of the verdicts. “I am appealing to our people: Do not get caught up by the worlds of these people who only want to increase their vote bank.”
In his statement, made Wednesday on Pakistani state-run TV, the PM warned the TLP to halt the protests. “This government will not stand aside and see property and livelihoods being destroyed. Do not force us to take action.”
In its ruling, the Supreme Court court quoted Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in its ruling, saying Asia Bibi appeared to have been “more sinned against than sinning.”
“Even if there was some grain of truth in the allegations levelled in this case against the appellant still the glaring contradictions in the evidence of the prosecution highlighted above clearly show that the truth in this case had been mixed with a lot which was untrue,” the ruling said.
David Curry, CEO of Open Doors USA, an organisation that lobbies on behalf of Christian minorities, said in a statement that “we are breathing a sigh of relief today.”
“These charges stemmed from her Christian identity as well as false accusations against her,” he said. “We are hopeful that Pakistan will now take additional steps to offer religious freedom and basic human rights throughout the country.”
Under the Pakistan penal code, the offence of blasphemy is punishable by death or life imprisonment. Widely criticised by international human rights groups, the law has been used disproportionately against minority religious groups in the country and to go after journalists critical of the Pakistani religious establishment.
Her case has attracted widespread outrage and support from Christians worldwide, and condemnation from conservative Islamist groups in Pakistan, who have demanded the death penalty be carried out and threatened widespread protests in the event of her being freed.
The case has been extremely divisive within Pakistani society, splitting liberals and conservatives and leaving even many supporters afraid to speak out on Asia Bibi’s behalf.
In 2011, senior politician Salman Taseer was shot dead by his own bodyguard for voicing support for Asia Bibi and condemning the country’s stringent blasphemy laws. His killer, Mumtaz Qadri, immediately surrendered to police and was later executed, becoming a martyr for many hardline Islamists.
At his funeral in 2016, thousands converged on the northern city of Rawalpindi as the Pakistani media was blacked out to prevent riots. Leaders of prominent Islamist political parties attended the funeral as supporters of Qadri carried signs in celebration of his “bravery.”
Qadri’s grave, in the capital city of Islamabad, has since become a shrine for those supporting Asia Bibi’s death sentence.