ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s supreme court has struck down the death sentence for blasphemy handed down to a Christian woman in a landmark decision.
Asia Bibi, a 47-year-old mother of four from Punjab province, was sentenced to hang for blasphemy in 2010. She had angered her Muslim farm workers by taking a sip of water from a cup she had fetched for them on a hot day. When they demanded she convert to Islam, she refused, prompting a mob to later allege that she had insulted the Islamic Prophet.
At the time, Asia Bibi said the case was a matter of women who didn’t like her “taking revenge.”
Bibi has now won her appeal against the conviction and subsequent death sentence.
The top court, in a three-member bench led by chief justice Saqib Nisar, released the verdict on Wednesday morning in Islamabad, three weeks after they had reached a decision.
Noting that no solid evidence of wrongdoing by Bibi was presented before the court, the apex court quoted Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in its ruling, saying Asia Bibi appeared to have been “more sinned against than sinning.”
“Her conviction is set aside and she is to be relieved forthwith if not required in other charges,” said Nisar, reading out the judgment.
Before the verdict, Bibi’s lawyer told AP: “I have lost my health. I am a high blood pressure patient, my privacy is totally lost. You have to be in hiding.”
The verdict followed large protests blasphemy campaigners, who are demanding death to the judges for not upholding the death sentence.
Members of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), a new political party dedicated to punishing blasphemy, has been blocking roads in Lahore – often called the ‘heart of Pakistan’ – and Karachi – the biggest city in the South Asian country – and pelted police with stones after the ruling.
More have returned to the Faizabad interchange in Islamabad, the site of a three-week long protest camp held by the party last year that crippled the capital.
Paramilitary security forces have deployed across the capital in the past 24 hours, protecting the Judges Enclave and the diplomatic zone. About 300 police have been stationed to guard the supreme court building.
Bibi, who is the first woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan, remains in Adiala jail, in Rawalpindi, but will be freed as soon as jail officials receive the court order.
Her family met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in February, during which the Catholic leader reportedly described Asia Bibi as a “martyr,” according to ACN President Alessandro Mondeduro.
Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict, previously called for Asia Bibi’s release.
In her 2012 book “Get Me Out of Here,” Asia Bibi included a letter to her family urging them not to “lose courage or faith in Jesus Christ.”
Under the Pakistan penal code, the offense of blasphemy is punishable by death or life imprisonment. Widely criticized 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.
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.
The governor of Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, and the minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, were shot dead in 2011 after they spoke in defense of Bibi and called for reform of blasphemy laws.