On Tuesday, Pakistan's Supreme Court upheld its acquittal of a Christian woman who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010, clearing the way for her to leave the country as radical Islamists seethe.
Asia Bibi, a mother and illiterate farmhand of Christian faith, spent eight years on death row, until the country's top court acquitted her last October, sparking massive protests across Pakistan.
The case stems back to a sweltering day in 2009, when Bibi was ordered to fetch water, upsetting Muslim farmworkers who feared she might sip from the same vessel. Bibi was subsequently accused of insulting the prophet Muhammad — an allegation that she denied.
In a crowded courtroom in Islamabad, Supreme Court Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa told the lawyer who had petitioned the court to overturn Bibi's acquittal, "Tell us a point which is against the evidence. If we read the evidence incorrectly, then let us know."
The lawyer, Ghulam Ikram, had argued that the high court's October verdict didn't give enough weight to witness testimonies.
But Khosa said, "The witnesses' statements are contradictory. The witnesses committed perjury."
The chief justice said those witnesses could go to jail for their false testimonies. Then the three-member bench ruled that Ikram failed to show a mistake in the high court's original judgment.
"The verdict is a way forward, and it is positive," Bibi's lawyer, Saiful Malook, told NPR. "The judges raised pertinent legal questions, focusing on law and evidence, expressing displeasure over the perjury that was committed by the complainant against Asia and other witnesses."
Bibi watched the decision be announced on live television, according The Associated Press, which spoke with her friend. "I am really gratefully to everybody," the friend, who was not named for fear of retaliation, quoted Bibi as saying. "Now after nine years it is confirmed that I am free and I will be going to hug my daughters."
She has been living under protection at an undisclosed location since her conviction was overturned. Now that the lawyer's challenge, the last obstacle to her freedom, has been dismissed, she is expected to leave the country. Two of her daughters, fearing for their own lives, fled to Canada where they received asylum.
Bibi's acquittal last fall incited days of protests by radical Islamists who called for her death, as well as the deaths of the three judges behind the ruling. Even Bibi's defense lawyer fled Pakistan after receiving death threats, returning to the country for the hearing after requesting personal security.
"I am already under threats and the government has not provided me with any security," he said, adding that he will continue to work for "the minorities and oppressed classes."
Last year, NPR spoke with demonstrator Mohammed Fayyaz, who denounced the acquittal. "This decision is against the wishes of the entire Muslim community," he said. "They are playing with fire."
Two Pakistani leaders who publicly voiced support for Bibi — a governor in Punjab and a Christian minister — were killed.
Security was tightened in Islamabad this week in anticipation of the court's decision and of potential unrest. Paramilitary troops were deployed to parts of the capital, and security forces surrounded the Supreme Court building.
"Are we liable to be murdered now that we have executed justice?" the chief justice said Tuesday, according to Dawn. "Is this Islam?"
Bibi's years-long case gained international attention, including a plea for her release from Pope Benedict XVI.
"This is a very good decision, but I think those who falsely implicated Bibi, wasting precious years of her life, should be prosecuted and sent to jail," Joseph Francis, a prominent Christian rights activist in Pakistan, tells NPR. "Such a sentence will prevent others from falsely implicating innocent people in blasphemy cases."
Amnesty International called for authorities to investigate any attempts to intimidate the Supreme Court. "This shameful delay in enforcing Asia Bibi's rights only reinforces the need for the Pakistani government to repeal the blasphemy laws as soon as possible, as well as other laws that discriminate against religious minorities and put their lives in danger," Amnesty's South Asia Campaigner, Rimmel Mohydin, said in a statement.
So far, Prime Minister Imran Khan has not spoken publicly on the Supreme Court's decision to uphold Bibi's acquittal.
Bibi would have been the first person executed by the state under blasphemy laws, as NPR has reported. In recent years, vigilantes have accused other Christians of blasphemy and taken their lives. "This is high time that we change the blasphemy law because most of the accused are innocent," Francis says.
Some of the radical clerics who took to the streets after Bibi's acquittal, led by hardline religious political party Tehreek-e-Labaik, which calls for the aggressive enforcement of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, were arrested and remain behind bars.
The party's acting chief, Shafiq Amini, remains in hiding and rejected the "non-Islamic" verdict in a video message. He demanded that the current Supreme Court bench be disbanded to give way to a larger group of decision-makers including Sharia court judges.
"No one should expect a compromise from our end," he said.
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