Pakistan clears Christian woman in landmark blasphemy case

Court frees Aasia Bibi - on death row for nine years - in a case that has become emblematic of fair trial concerns.

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    Islamabad, Pakistan - Pakistan's Supreme Court has acquitted a Christian woman convicted for blasphemy, prompting protests by far-right groups that have been demanding her execution for years.

    Aasia Bibi was cleared of all blasphemy charges and authorities were ordered to release her after nine years on death row, Chief Justice Saqib Nisar announced in the capital, Islamabad, on Wednesday. 

    "This appeal is allowed. The judgements of the High Court, as well as the Trial Court, are reversed. Consequently, the conviction as also the sentence of death awarded to the appellant is set aside and she is acquitted of the charge," Nisar told a packed courtroom.

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    Late on Wednesday, Prime Minister Imran Khan issued a warning to the religious right that any prolonged blockade of streets would be met with action, while appealing for Pakistanis to respect the verdict.

    "They are inciting you for their own political gain, you should not get trapped by them for the sake of the country, they are doing no service to Islam," Khan said in a televised broadcast.

    "We will protect people's properties and lives, we will not allow any sabotage, we will not allow any traffic to be stopped," he added.

    Bibi, 53, a native of the central Pakistan village of Ithan Wali, was accused by two Muslim women of having insulted Islam's Prophet Muhammad and the Quran during an argument sparked by their refusal to drink water from the same vessel as her in 2009.

    She was convicted and sentenced to death by a trial court in November 2010, with the Lahore High Court upholding her conviction four years later.

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    Rights groups and Bibi's lawyers, however, argued that there were numerous fair trial concerns in her case, one that became emblematic of such concerns in many cases under Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws. 

    Blasphemy against Islam and its Prophet is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where the crime can carry a compulsory death sentence. 

    Increasingly, blasphemy accusations have resulted in mob lynchings and extrajudicial murders.

    At least 74 people have been killed in violence related to blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera tally. Those killed include a provincial governor and a federal minister who stood up for Bibi when she was first accused in 2009. 

    On Wednesday, judges said they agreed that Bibi had not been tried fairly, noting "glaring and stark" contradictions in the prosecution's evidence, and ordered her immediate release. 

    Justice Asif Khosa, writing in the full verdict, issued shortly after Wednesday's announcement, said the truth had not been fully revealed during the trial.

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    "[There is] the irresistible and unfortunate impression that all those concerned in the case with providing evidence and conducting investigation had taken upon themselves not to speak the truth of at least not to divulge the whole truth," he wrote.

    "Aasia has gotten justice at last," Bibi's lawyer Saif-ul-Malook told Al Jazeera shortly after the verdict was announced. 

    Amnesty International hailed Wednesday's decision as a "landmark verdict."

    "For the past eight years, Aasia Bibi's life languished in limbo. Despite her protest of innocence, and despite the lack of evidence against her, this case was used to rouse angry mobs, justify the assassinations of two senior officials, and intimidate the Pakistani state into capitulation," the rights group said. 

    "Justice has finally prevailed. The message must go out that the blasphemy laws will no longer be used to persecute the country's most vulnerable minorities," said Amnesty's Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director. 

    There are still roughly 40 other peopleon death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy in Pakistan, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

    Malik Bashir Awan, father of the man who killed a Punjab governor over his support for Bibi, told protesters in Islamabad they "must take revenge" for Wednesday's verdict [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

    Protests across country

    Following the announcement, protests broke out in various cities on the call of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a far-right political and religious group led by firebrand Muslim leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi that has long called for Bibi to be executed. 

    TLP leaders, including Rizvi, gathered outside government buildings in the eastern city of Lahore, while smaller groups of protesters blocked roads in the southern city of Karachi, the capital Islamabad and various towns in Punjab province.

    Following the verdict, TLP called for the deaths of the judges who overturned Bibi's sentence, as well as the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan's government.

    "[The judges] who have ordered the release of the accursed Aasia are all liable to be killed under religious edict," said Afzal Qadri, a TLP leader, at the Lahore protest.

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    The lawyers for the complainant in the case, prayer leader Muhammad Salim, said they would decide whether to file a review petition after reading the detailed verdict.

    TLP and its followers have often accused rights groups that work with those accused of blasphemy, and courts that have upheld appeals, of working under foreign influence.

    "We were expecting this decision, because the judges are bound in slavery," said an angry Tahira Shaheen, one of Salim's lawyers.

    "This is the slavery of the West, of which we have never been set free."

    Hundreds gathered at Islamabad's Faizabad interchange, blocking a major highway and demanding that decision to acquit Bibi be rescinded [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

    'Must take revenge'

    In the capital Islamabad, hundreds of protesters gathered to block the main Faizabad highway interchange, a key entry point into the city.

    "We must take revenge for this verdict," said Malik Bashir Awan, father to Mumtaz Qadri, the man who assassinated Punjab Governor Taseer in 2010 over his support for Bibi.

    His words were met with loud cheers, and chants for those who commit blasphemy to be beheaded.

    Bibi's family, and those of other people accused of blasphemy, have long faced death threats, and are forced to change their whereabouts often due to security concerns. They were not present in court on Wednesday. 

    "The government is not interested in my security," said Malook, Bibi's lawyer. "That I am alive now if only under Allah's protection".

    At the protest in Islamabad, demonstrators said they would continue to block the highway until their demands were met.

    "Our faith says that a blasphemer must be put to death," said Hasan Chisti, 31, a vegetable shop owner who participated in a three-week TLP blockade of the same highway interchange last year.

    "We do not accept this decision at all, and we will stay here as long as our leaders demand it." 

    Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News