Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan activists protest in Hyderabad on Jan. 29 against the Supreme Court decision to reject a challenge to the acquittal of Asia Bibi, paving the way for the Catholic mother to leave the country. (Photo by Akran Shahid/AFP)
Pakistan’s top court has rejected a final petition challenging the release of Catholic woman Asia Bibi on charges of blasphemy.
The Supreme Court ruling on Jan. 29 means that she is free to leave the country after receiving death threats and living in hiding.
According to recent Canadian reports it is believed Bibi has already left Pakistan and has reunited with her daughters in Toronto in the afternoon of Jan. 29 local time.
Bibi, who was sentenced to death in 2010 after being convicted of insulting the Prophet Muhammad during an altercation with Muslim farm workers, had her conviction quashed last October by the Supreme Court in a landmark ruling which sparked days of violent protests.
A month later, firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who called for a mutiny against the army and judiciary, was detained on charges of sedition.
After Bibi’s release from a prison in Multan on Nov. 7, the 47-year-old mother of five was airlifted to capital Islamabad and taken to a safe house.
Her lawyer Saiful Malook sacrificed his asylum status in the Netherlands and returned to Islamabad on the eve of the Jan. 29 hearing.
After hearing arguments, Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa dismissed the petition on merit and upheld Bibi’s acquittal.
He said Bibi’s accusers were guilty of perjury and if the case had not been so sensitive, they would have been jailed for life. “The image of Islam we are showing to the world gives me much grief and sorrow,” Khosa said.
The court’s verdict sparked a few scattered protests by Islamist groups in Karachi and Lahore, but overall the country remained peaceful. In Lahore, around a dozen Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) members were detained after they tried to stage a protest outside the Punjab Assembly.
Church, activists hail verdict
Joseph Francis, national director of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, which helps persecuted religious minorities in Pakistan, joined Bibi’s lawyer Malook in a press briefing outside the court.
“We hail the Supreme Court judges for being courageous in making such a historic judgment which will impact similar cases in days to come. The review was dismissed on merit,” Francis told ucanews.com.
“When speaking of false witnesses against Bibi, Justice Khosa referred to article 194 about giving or fabricating false evidence with intent to procure conviction of a capital offense. We hope the punishment is elaborated in his detailed verdict.”
Despite Bibi’s freedom, Francis remains concerned for her safety. “Firebrand clerics have called for her murder. She cannot live freely as other citizens. Still, we are encouraged by liberal Muslims like Malook who extended their support for further victims of blasphemy,” he said.
The Cecil and Iris Chaudhry Foundation (CICF), a Catholic NGO, applauded the “historic, fair and impartial decision” in a press statement.
“Despite the landmark judgment in this case, CICF continues to demand of the authorities to revisit Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and to take concrete measures to prevent their misuse, which is drastically affecting the lives of both Muslim and non-Muslim Pakistanis,” it stated.
Samson Salamat, the Christian chairman of the interreligious Rawadari Tehreek (Movement for Tolerance), also demanded a penalty against the cleric who falsely accused Bibi of blasphemy.
“He should be tried for lying, misguiding a court, imprisoning an innocent woman for nine years and endangering her life. The apex court should also question the subordinate courts for denying her justice. Parliament should make this a test case to make laws preventing misuse of blasphemy laws and punish the false accusers,” he said.
“The present government also deserves praise for arresting extremists who were complicit in spreading anarchy in the country and holding the state hostage.”
He also praised former Punjab governor Salman Taseer and Catholic minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who were assassinated in 2011 for supporting Bibi and demanding reforms to the controversial blasphemy laws.