Pakistan’s highest court has spared the life of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in a long-awaited ruling Wednesday, prompting celebration among human rights activists and countrywide protest by religious parties.
Asia Bibi, a mother and farmer, had spent eight years seeking mercy from appeals courts while imprisoned on death row. The supreme court acquitted Bibi on charges of making ‘‘derogatory remarks’’ about the Muslim prophet Muhammad, ruling that the evidence against her appeared fabricated and insufficient. If she had been found guilty and not received presidential clemency, Bibi would have been the first person hanged under Pakistan’s strict anti-blasphemy law, which carries a mandatory penalty of death.
‘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.
After the verdict, protests erupted across the country, as hundreds of people from religious parties took to roads and highways in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Karachi, and elsewhere.
Pakistani Government Takes Action Against Unrest
Anticipating the widespread protest and agitation, the Pakistani government took stringent security measures in Islamabad, the capital, and other cities.
Extra police and Pakistani Rangers, a paramilitary force, were deployed at important government buildings, including the Supreme Court.
Later Wednesday, Prime Minister Imran Khan called for calm. Bibi’s case has been at the heart of growing national turmoil over the laws and punishments for those accused of blasphemy against Islam and Muhammad. The harsh laws are often used to target minorities, including Christians and Ahmedis.
Bibi, a farmhand and mother said to be in her late 40s, was accused of blasphemy after arguing with Muslim co-workers nearly a decade ago. She was immediately charged with the crime and put in prison. The provincial governor of Punjab, where she lived, made speeches defending her and implicitly questioning the blasphemy laws. He was assassinated by his own bodyguard, who confessed and said he had shot his boss to defend Islam.
The killer, 26-year-old Mumtaz Qadri, was hanged by the government for murder in 2016, but by then he had become a cause of celebration and a religious hero to many Sunni Muslims. The movement in defense of the prophet was born.
Meanwhile, Bibi remained in prison and was convicted of blasphemy, then appealed to the higher courts. Her treatment became a cause for religious rights groups in Pakistan and the West, which saw her acquittal Wednesday as a victory.
The cause of ‘‘defending the prophet’’ through blasphemy laws has spawned a fervent religious movement in recent years that has attracted millions of mainstream Pakistani Muslims. It has led to mass protests and inroads in parliamentary elections.
On the eve of judgment, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, chief of the religious political party Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), warned against any decision in favor of Bibi and said that if that happened, the whole country would be brought to a standstill. He urged his followers to ‘‘Be prepared for any sacrifice if Asia Bibi is acquitted.’’
The surprise ruling is likely to intensify months of intermittent conflict between the anti-blasphemy movement and civilian authorities, who were forced to back down late last year when the group staged a weeks-long protest that blocked the major highway between Islamabad and nearby Rawalpindi.
Why Bibi Asia Was Arrested
The case against Bibi stems from a fight over a cup of water on a hot day. One afternoon in June 2009, Bibi was working in the field picking berries when she asked a group of women if they would like some water. She offered to fetch it and bring it to them. But the women, who were Muslim, told Bibi that ‘‘because she is a Christian they would never take water from her hand,’’ according to the ruling.
That’s when the women alleged that Bibi made ‘‘derogatory remarks’’ about Muhammad, allegations that the court found did not hold up beyond a reasonable doubt. In Pakistan, where the mere allegation of blasphemy can lead to lynchings and murders before a court has even heard the evidence, Bibi’s case ignited acute tension between the increasingly aggressive far-right anti-blasphemy movement and groups supporting leniency.
The judges, who took no issue with death as punishment for blasphemy, said that in this case they were bound to honor the accused’s presumption of innocence, which they found had been violated. In fact, Justice Khosa wrote, it appeared the mob’s rush to judgment in its support for putting Bibi to death was just as blasphemous.
What Justice Khosa Pakistan Had To Say About the Acquittal
A day after religio-political parties criticized and threatened the judiciary following the top court’s acquittal of Asia Bibi on blasphemy charges, Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar asked how the court could punish someone if the charges against them could not be proven.
“I and the bench [members] are all lovers of the Prophet (peace be upon him),” CJP Nisar commented during the hearing of a separate case on Thursday. Declaring that the elements inciting people against the judiciary and army just to enlarge their vote bank were not serving the cause of Islam, the premier had warned the groups that had mounted protests to desist from confronting the state.
“We are ready to sacrifice ourselves for the Prophet’s (PBUH) honour. But we are not judges only for Muslims,” Justice Nisar asserted. “If there is no proof against someone, how can we punish them?”
“We began our judgement with the first kalma. We do not love the Prophet (PBUH) any less than anyone else. We have judges on our bench who are always reciting the Durood Sharif. Our faith is incomplete without our faith in our Prophet (PBUH),” he said.
Justice Nisar said that the judgement had also been written in Urdu so that ordinary citizens could read it and understand it. “I have not seen God, but I have learned to recognize Him through the Prophet’s (PBUH) guidance,” he added. “Will every person now have to provide proof of their faith?” he asked.