Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam and ordered her freed, a ruling that set off protests by hardline Islamists but was welcomed by human rights advocates.
Asia Bibi, a mother of four, has been living on death row since 2010 when she became the first woman to be sentenced to death by hanging under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.
She was condemned for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbours objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.
Bibi has always denied blaspheming.
Bibi’s case has outraged Christians worldwide and been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help Bibi were assassinated.
Supporters of Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), which was founded to support Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, immediately condemned the ruling and blocked roads in Karachi, the country’s largest city, and in the city of Lahore.
The TLP threatened to paralyses cities if Bibi’s conviction was overturned.
Chief Justice Saqib Nasir, who headed a special three-person bench set up for the appeal, cited the Koran in his ruling, writing “Tolerance is the basic principle of Islam” and noting the religion condemns injustice and oppression.
“It is great news for Pakistan and rest of the world,” Bibi’s lawyer Saiful Mulook told Reuters.
“Asia Bibi has finally been served justice. … Pakistan’s Supreme Court must be appreciated that it upheld the law of the land and didn’t succumb to any pressure.”
Bibi’s case has been high on the agenda of religious hardliners in Pakistan, many of whom are fiercely opposed to her release.
In November, TLP staged a crippling blockade of the capital, Islamabad, after small changes to a religious oath, which it claims was tantamount to blasphemy.
Seven people were killed and more than 200 wounded in clashes with the police and TLP’s supporters only dispersed after striking a deal with the military.
Insulting Islam’s prophet is punishable by death under Pakistani law, and blasphemy accusations stir such emotions that they are almost impossible to defend against.
Dozens have been killed following blasphemy claims, sometimes by mobs of men.
Rights groups say the blasphemy law is exploited by religious extremists as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.
The law does not clearly define blasphemy and evidence might not be reproduced in court for fear of committing a fresh offence.
Bibi’s representatives have claimed she was involved in a dispute with her neighbors and that her accusers had contradicted themselves.
In February, Bibi’s husband Ashiq Masih and one of her daughters met with Pope Francis shortly before Rome’s ancient Colosseum was lit in red one evening in solidarity with persecuted Christians, and Bibi in particular.
Pope Francis told Bibi’s daughter: “I think often of your mother and I pray for her”.
Christians make up only about two per cent of Pakistan’s population and are sometimes discriminated against.
“This is a landmark verdict. For the past eight years, Asia Bibi’s life languished in limbo,” said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director for Amnesty International.
“The message must go out that the blasphemy laws will no longer be used to persecute the country’s most vulnerable minorities.”