By Salman Masood
She has been isolated on death row for eight years after an accusation with little evidence that she had spoken against the Prophet Muhammad. A prominent governor who spoke out in her defense was killed by his own bodyguard, and mobs have rallied against the suggestion that leniency might be in order.
But for the first time since her arrest in 2009, Asia Bibi, the Christian Pakistani woman whose blasphemy conviction the following year rallied international condemnation of a law that has inspired violence again and again, is free.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday fully acquitted her and ordered her “released forthwith,” in an exceptionally rare ruling against a blasphemy verdict. The ruling, by a three-member bench of the court, was announced by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar.
“This is a landmark verdict,” said Omar Waraich, the deputy South Asia director at Amnesty International. “Despite her protest of innocence, and despite the lack of evidence against her, this case was used to rouse angry mobs, justify the assassinations of two senior officials, and intimidate the Pakistani state into capitulation. Justice has finally prevailed.”
Mr. Waraich added, “The message must go out that the blasphemy laws will no longer be used to persecute the country’s most vulnerable minorities.”
But given the realities in Pakistan, where last year a mob lynched a student on just the rumor that he had committed blasphemy, Ms. Bibi is likely to spend the rest of her life as a marked woman.
The country braced for violence after the verdict was announced. Protests erupted in several cities, mostly by supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik, the religious party of the firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi.
Pir Muhammad Afzal Qadri, one of the leaders of Tehreek-e-Labaik, told supporters in Lahore, the capital of Punjab Province, that the three justices who delivered the verdict were risking death. He also called for the removal of the Pakistan army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa.
Protesters in Islamabad blocked one of the main highways that connect the capital to the neighboring city of Rawalpindi. They also burned tires and chanted slogans against the decision.
In the southern port city of Karachi, hundreds of members of Tehreek-e-Labbaik disrupted traffic at intersections.
“They’ve made a mockery of Islam with this verdict, and we will hold them accountable,” said a protester, Saqib Ali, 30. “Her freedom means all others who want to say anything against Islam know they will be protected by the courts.”
Protests also broke out in smaller cities across Punjab.
On Wednesday night, Prime Minister Imran Khan briefly addressed the nation, urging people not to be provoked by a “small section of society” and saying his government would not tolerate disruption of normal life.
“Do not take the state to a point where it has no option but to take action,” Mr. Khan said, addressing protesters.
Ms. Bibi’s case has drawn worldwide condemnation and calls for overturning Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which in effect has been used by extremists as a bludgeon against religious minorities.
Ms. Bibi, a former farmworker in her early 50s who has five children, found herself at the center of the issue in June 2009 in Ittan Wali, a dusty farming village.
On a hot summer day, Ms. Bibi had gone to pick berries with her Muslim co-workers. She brought water for them on the orders of a local landlord, but the Muslim women refused to touch the water bowl. A bitter argument ensued, each side presenting a different version of the verbal exchange.
Muslims said Ms. Bibi had uttered vile abuses against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Ms. Bibi insisted she had not and that she was the victim of false accusations prompted by bigotry. She was dragged to a local police station and charged with blasphemy, and until Wednesday remained in jail.
Blasphemy remains a highly combustible issue in Pakistan. Mere allegations can set off spasms of violence and mass riots. Several religious parties have used it to flex their muscles.
The blasphemy law prescribes a death sentence for anyone convicted of insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. But critics say the law has been mostly misused, often to settle personal vendettas and property disputes. Religious minorities are especially vulnerable to such accusations, and people who have advocated for changes in the blasphemy law have met with violence.
In 2011, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province and an outspoken secular politician who had campaigned for Ms. Bibi’s release and changes in the country’s blasphemy laws, was shot and killed by his police bodyguard outside a cafe in an upscale area of Islamabad.
Two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister of minorities and the only Christian cabinet minister in the Pakistani government, was shot and killed outside his home in Islamabad after he also called for changes to the blasphemy law.
“Today has wiped away so much pain. It marks a beautiful end to a senseless and horrific saga,” Shehrbano Taseer, Mr. Taseer’s daughter, said in an interview after Ms. Bibi was acquitted.
“It’s a victory for my father, Salmaan Taseer, and for Shahbaz Bhatti, who sacrificed their lives fighting for this cause,” she said. “All the brave men and women who have stuck to their beliefs every day, raising funds and raising awareness for Asia Bibi, protesting her case in the media and on the roads, speaking her truth in courts and in private conversations — they’ve had a pivotal role to play in today’s landmark judgment too.”
Ms. Taseer added, “Today is a day to celebrate courage and humanity, patience and justice. It’s a day to remember the true essence of Islam. And it’s a day to remember that against all odds, we must continue to raise our voices for what is right.”