After being acquitted of blasphemy by the Pakistan Supreme Court, Asia Bibi walked free Thursday. She had been in solitary confinement for almost 10 years. But thanks to death threats and protests by Islamists after her acquittal, she may have to leave the country.
Asia’s lawyer, Saiful Malook, said that his client was taken to an undisclosed location for her safety after being released from prison. He said that she would soon leave the country. France and Spain have offered asylum to the 47-year-old mother of four, who is a Roman Catholic.
Why Asia Bibi was accused of blasphemy
Asia Noreen was the first woman in Pakistan to be sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy.
On June 14, 2009, Asia is alleged to have made some “sarcastic and defamatory remarks” against Prophet Muhammad during an argument with three Muslim women. The three women had allegedly refused to drink water from a container that had been used by a Christian. A few days later, a mob accused her of insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, and that led to her initial conviction.
A trial court sentenced Asia to death in November 2010, under section 295-C of Pakistan Penal Code. The offence carries a mandatory death sentence. The Lahore High Court upheld the verdict in October 2014.
In 2011, Punjab governor Salman Taseer voiced his support for Asia and spoke up against the blasphemy law. Taseer was assassinated by his guard Mumtaz Qadri for his comments.
Qadri was convicted and executed in 2016. but later was hailed as a martyr by religious hardliners, and millions visited a shrine set up for him near Islamabad. Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister for minorities, was also killed in 2011 after seeking justice for Asia.
Asia Bibi’s defence
Asia said she had a “quarrel” with the three women and “hot words” were exchanged after which Mafia and Asma (the two women she was arguing with), and Qari Muhammad Salaam (the complainant) and his wife, fabricated a case of blasphemy against her. Asia also reportedly said she had “great respect and honour for the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and the Holy Quran” and denied making any blasphemous remark.
A document released by the International Court of Jurists (ICJ) said that the “hot words” Asia mentioned in her defence were treated as her confession by the trial court which sentenced her to death.
Asia, who had pleaded not guilty, appealed against her conviction. The Supreme Court agreed to hear it in July 2015. The first hearing took place on October 13, 2016, but the matter was adjourned when one of the judges recused himself.
On October 8, 2018, a Supreme Court bench – headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar – heard the matter again and reserved its verdict. Asia was finally acquitted on October 31, 2018.
Landmark judgement on October 31, 2018
Overturning the trial court and the Lahore High Court verdicts, the Chief Justice of Pakistan said,”Tolerance is the basic principle of Islam.”
“If our religion of Islam comes down heavily upon commission of blasphemy, then Islam is also very tough against those who level false allegations of a crime,” the judgement said. A Dawn report which quoted the judgment said that the Supreme Court had said that the prosecution has “failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.”
However, the judgment invited sharp reactions from Pakistan hardliners, with the Chief Justice also receiving death threats.
Protesters demanded that Asia be publicly executed. Security forces moved quickly, deploying outside churches to protect minority Christians and urging demonstrators to disperse peacefully. Commandos were sent to protect Nisar and the other two other judges after a Lahore cleric urged religious extremists to kill them.
— PTI (@PTIofficial) October 31, 2018
The outburst over the divisive blasphemy law prompted Prime Minister Imran Khan to deliver a televised address to the nation guaranteeing the judges’ safety and to criticize those who made verbal attacks on Pakistan’s institutions, including his government.