5m Pakistan court overturns blasphemy death sentence

Erika Holt
November 1, 2018

Asia, a 47-year-old mother of four, was on death row since 2010 when she became the first woman to be sentenced to death by hanging under Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws, which critics say are often misused to persecute minorities and to settle scores.

Mere calls to reform the law have provoked violence, most notably the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, by his own bodyguard in broad daylight in Islamabad in 2011. The judgement of high court as well as trial court is reversed.

Ahead of the verdict, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a hard-line cleric who has brought tens of thousands of people into the streets for past rallies, called on his supporters to gather in all major cities to express their love for the prophet and to protest if Bibi is released. "Rangers were deployed around the court and other parts of the capital".

"It is ironical that in the Arabic language the appellant's name Asia means "sinful" but in the circumstances of the present case she appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare's King [Lear], 'more sinned against than sinning, ' " Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa wrote in a concurring opinion. She is being held at an undisclosed location for security reasons.

"Her conviction is set aside and she is to be relieved forthwith if not required in other charges", the judgement said.

"I don't see any derogatory remarks vis-a-vis the holy Koran as per the FIR", added Chief Justice Nisar, referring to the initial complaint filed in the case. "And we ask each and every one of you to please pray for Asia Bibi's safety as you rejoice at her release". To which Bibi responded: "I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind". Will they let me out, really?

"I can't believe what I am hearing, will I go out now?"

Kelsey Zorzi, director of advocacy for global religious freedom for ADF International, said blasphemy laws "criminalize the exercise of fundamental human rights, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion". "We, therefore, urge all governments to uphold this right by ceasing enforcement and initiating repeal of their blasphemy laws".

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Tufail Ahmad, a senior fellow for the Middle East Media Research Institute's Islamism and Counter-Radicalization Initiative, wrote about the threats and violence from Muslims who were trying to influence their judicial system.

Only two months later, Pakistan's minister for minorities Shabaz Bhatti - who also spoke out about the need to reform blasphemy laws - was killed by assassins. It was also a source of division within Pakistan. "What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind?"

The protests are being led by the Islamic party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah. Asia's case remains highly sensitive and the ignition point for many acts of religious hatred.

ACLJ said the protesters are "enraged at the very possibility of this Christian's life being spared". "They are urging the generals to rebel against the army chief and the government, while they are calling for the head of the SC judges", the PM said.

Persecution of Christians for "blasphemy" remains a serious problem in Pakistan.

Commandos were sent to protect the three high court judges who chose to acquit Ms Bibi after a cleric in the eastern city of Lahore urged religious extremists to kill them.

ACLJ said the "barbaric mob rule" can not be tolerated. It is our hope that Pakistan's security forces will be able to secure all Pakistani Christians, as extremists will likely seek revenge against their community.

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