April 24, 2019

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Pakistani Woman Accused of Blasphemy Will Remain Free, Supreme Court Rules

Pakistani Woman Accused of Blasphemy Will Remain Free, Supreme Court Rules
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Christian woman who has been in hiding since Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned her blasphemy conviction last year, leading to violent protests and death threats, is apparently free to leave the country, after the court on Tuesday dismissed a challenge to its earlier ruling.

The woman, Asia Bibi, a farmworker with five children, spent eight years on death row after being convicted in 2010 of blaspheming Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. She denied the accusations, which she said were made after she had an argument with Muslim co-workers.

Ms. Bibi was released from prison after the Supreme Court acquitted her in October. But hard-line Islamists, who led large protests in the days after her acquittal, called for her execution, and she has remained in hiding. She has sought asylum overseas, but the government said she could not leave Pakistan until the high court had heard a petition calling for a review of her acquittal.

On Tuesday, a three-member Supreme Court panel led by Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa dismissed that petition. During the proceedings, Justice Khosa observed that the petitioner had failed to present any violation of the law in the acquittal verdict.

Islamabad, the capital, had been put on high alert ahead of the court ruling on Tuesday in case protests erupted again.

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Asia Bibi in 2010, the year she was convicted of blasphemy. She spent eight years on death row before the Supreme Court ordered her release.CreditAssociated Press

“After nine years behind bars for a crime she didn’t commit, it is difficult to see this long-overdue verdict as justice,” a South Asia campaigner for Amnesty International, Rimmel Mohydin, said in a statement. “But she should now be free to reunite with her family and seek safety in a country of her choice.”

Ms. Bibi’s case has drawn worldwide attention to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which critics say have often been used to persecute religious minorities. Blasphemy is a highly combustible issue in Pakistan, where mere allegations can set off violence and mass riots. A number of religious parties have seized on such cases to build support and flex their political muscles.

Ms. Bibi’s case was a factor in the 2011 assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province, who had campaigned for her release and for changes in the blasphemy laws. He was shot and killed by a police officer in his own security detail, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri. Mr. Qadri, who was hanged in 2016, has since become a figure of religious devotion, with frequent visitors to his shrine on the outskirts of Islamabad.

Speaking to reporters outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday, Saiful Malook, a lawyer for Ms. Bibi, hailed the decision and said the court had sent a “loud message for the future that people should be careful in bringing false cases.” When it overturned her death sentence last year, the Supreme Court noted glaring contradictions in the statements of the witnesses.

“She is free to leave Pakistan,” Mr. Malook said on Tuesday. “She is free to live anywhere she likes, to enjoy the rest of her life.”

Maleeka Ali Bokhari, a lawmaker from the governing Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party and parliamentary secretary to the ministries of law and justice, called the Supreme Court decision “a landmark moment for the equal and fair dispensation of justice in Pakistan.”

“It is also a victory for the vulnerable sections of Pakistan, including women, who despite progressive legislation by successive governments continue to be failed by the justice system,” she said. “Most importantly, it has set an important precedent on the applicability of blasphemy law, burden of proof and fair trial guarantees embedded in the Constitution of Pakistan, providing protection for all citizens of the country, irrespective of their social status or religious beliefs.”



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