Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, a hardline religious political party, block the road during a protest against a court decision to overturn the conviction of Christian woman Asia Bibi in Karachi on October 31, 2018. مناصري حزب تحريك لبيك باكستان (TLP) المتشدد يقطعون الطريق أثناء مظاهرة ضد قرار المحكمة إلغاء حكم إعدام ضد المسيحية آسيا بيبي في كاراتشي في 31 أكتوبر/تشرين الأول 2018.Photo: AFP/Rizwan Tabassum
Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, a hardline religious political party, block the road during a protest against a court decision to overturn the conviction of Christian woman Asia Bibi in Karachi on October 31, 2018. Photo: AFP

The Pakistan Supreme Court has overturned the death sentence imposed on Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who had been convicted of blasphemy. The three-judge Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar upheld Bibi’s appeal against Lahore High Court’s verdict from October 2014, which had upheld the death penalty handed down at an earlier trial.

The trial court had sentenced her to death in November 2010, following an incident in 2009, when Bibi was alleged to have made “defamatory and sarcastic” remarks against Prophet Muhammad in an argument with three Muslim women in a Sheikhupura field.

The dispute began when the Muslim women objected to Bibi touching their water bowl because she was a Christian. Later, a cleric who was not present at the time of the dispute filed the blasphemy case.

“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,” Chief Justice Nisar said. He announced the verdict in Bibi’s favour alongside Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel.

Speaking to AFP, Bibi’s husband Aashiq Masih lauded 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 was innocent,” said Masih.

Meanwhile, Islamist groups took to the streets in the immediate aftermath of the verdict, with roads blocked in the capital Islamabad and protests being initiated against the verdict in Karachi and Islamabad.

Most of the protests have been organized by Tehrik Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the radical Islamist group that had kept the capital hostage in November last year over changes in the Election Reforms Bill that it deemed blasphemous.

In September this year, TLP pressurized the government over the anti-Islam cartoon competition in the Netherlands and the removal of a top economist from the Economic Advisory Council owing to his Ahmadiyya faith.

On the morning of the Supreme Court verdict, TLP’s firebrand chief Khadim Rizvi released a video message which was widely circulated on social media, urging the “lovers of Prophet Muhammad” to come to the streets around 8 am (PST). “If the blasphemer is released then be prepared to give any kind of sacrifice until the center overturns the decision.”

Anticipating a violent reaction to the verdict, security forces ordered law enforcement agencies to be deployed across major cities on Tuesday. In a notification sent to the rangers and police, a copy of which is available with Asia Times, the Sindh government home office said, “It is advisable to sensitize the matter and necessary security arrangements are made for protection of all areas with minority populations, places of worship and Honourable Courts [sic].”

In the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court verdict, TLP activists gathered outside the Punjab Assembly in Lahore and began blocking the roads. Speaking to Asia Times from the protest, TLP spokesman Ijaz Ashrafi said the group is planning to “choke the entire country.”

“We want the three judges who issued the verdict to be removed immediately. Similarly, we want the Imran Khan-led government to immediately step down since it is under his watch that this decision has been taken,” he said. When asked if there are chances the protests might turn violent, Ashrafi said: “We are here to embrace martyrdom.”

Meanwhile, rights activists and minority groups have hailed the Supreme Court’s decision.

“There was no case against Asia Bibi. Justice has finally prevailed,” said veteran rights activist and former president of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, I A Rehman. He also lauded the bravery of the judges who announced the verdict.

“Of course they were under tremendous pressure. But let’s hope that rule of law now prevails and Pakistan can continue to serve justice to the religious minorities and safeguard their rights,” he added.

There was overwhelming jubilation among the local Christian community, for whom the Asia Bibi case carried momentous significance. “It is an absolutely historic verdict,” said Pastor Simon Bashir of the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church to Asia Times. “We are thankful to God that the Supreme Court has given Asia Bibi justice. We pray for love, peace and prosperity in our country. Many in the Christian community had fasted for Asia Bibi today.”

“The soul and teachings of Islam do not teach that law must be taken into one’s own hands,” added Pastor Simon Bashir who has a Masters in Islamic Studies from Balochistan University. “We urge our friends who claim to represent faith, and those that are outraged over the verdict, to embrace love and peace as well. We believe in Pakistan’s laws and follow them. But no innocent should be punished over personal grudges.”

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