Pakistan's top court has acquitted Asia Bibi of blasphemy charges in a case that led to the deaths of a sitting governor and minister in the past. The decision — viewed as controversial by Pakistani hardliners—has triggered violent protests.
Pakistan's top court on Wednesday acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death in 2010 on blasphemy charges, in a landmark ruling that has ignited protests by religious groups in several cities across the country.
Authorities had imposed Section 144 to restrict the gathering of people, pillion riding and display of weapons across Sindh and Punjab provinces, according to local media reports.
The Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party has called for nation-wide protests and asked for the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan's government. The party also issued a statement saying, "all those who ordered the release of Asia deserve death."
If #PTI doesn't takes a valid & legal action against these goons vandalizing Pakistan, then we must stop criticizing #PMLN for it's failure to lure away TLP protestants while #Islamabad lock down last year!— Saqeena Quasim (@saqeena_quasim) October 31, 2018
It is a tough time for govt as no action may follow intense criticism. https://t.co/wzCTByplQ3
Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar, who headed a special three-person bench set up for the appeal, announced the verdict to a packed courtroom and ordered Asia Bibi released.
She has been held at an undisclosed location for security reasons and is expected to leave the country.
Chief Justice Saqib Nasir cited the Quran in his ruling, writing: "Tolerance is the basic principle of Islam," and noting that the religion condemns injustice and oppression.
"It is great news for Pakistan and rest of the world," Bibi’s lawyer Saiful Mulook said.
“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."
Fantastic news. #AasiaBibi, falsely accused of #blasphemy has been acquitted by #Pakistan Supreme Court. It took years but #justice has been served.— Raza Ahmad Rumi (@Razarumi) October 31, 2018
Let’s hope that the miscreants will be kept away from streets. https://t.co/e3lr7vSy2Q
The ruling by the chief justice, according to excerpts published on the Dawn news website, further stated: "The expression 'proof beyond reasonable doubt' is of fundamental importance to the criminal justice: it is one of the principles which seeks to ensure that no innocent person is convicted.
"Keeping in mind the evidence produced by the prosecution against the alleged blasphemy committed by the appellant, the prosecution has categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.”
#AasiaBibi acquittal was the only verdict legally possible. But as @Asma_Jahangir said when she won #SalamatMasih acquittal, don’t celebrate yet, the fight is not over. Mullahs are not concerned with justice. Fasadis on rampage to stay politically relevant. #Pakistan #blasphemy— beena sarwar (@beenasarwar) October 31, 2018
Maulana Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, the president of the All Pakistan Ulema Council told TRT World, "We have always respected the judiciary’s verdicts as long as they are based on justice. But in this case, they did not hear the prosecution’s lawyer nor did they give prosecution a chance to present the evidence and arguments in the court."
"So we can say that in this case Saqib Nisar and his companions have deliberately attempted to create unrest in the country and did not play a just role."
The cleric further said that "Justice Saqib Nisar and his two companions should voluntarily resign from their positions. Otherwise, the Pakistan Ulama Council will take this case to the Supreme Judicial Council of Pakistan, the PUC will be the appellant in the case."
The court's ruling was welcomed by several human rights organisations and potentially paves the way to instigate discussion around the controversial law itself, a taboo subject for politicians and members of the judiciary as the backlash to any debate tends to be swift, and fierce.
These very same zealots were backed by Gen Bajwa’s men against an elected government. Weaponizing blasphemy and jihad is easy; preventing it from boomeranging on you is not. These calls for rebellion in the army ranks are highly, highly condemnable #Pakistan #AasiaBibi https://t.co/h5Vj3wSLFP— Mohammad Taqi (@mazdaki) October 31, 2018
Talking about precedence or repercussions faced by the judges who heard the case, Asad Jamal, a Lahore High Court lawyer and human rights activist, told TRT World, "Unless the government provides total security to the judges at the trial and unless abuse of the legal/judicial process is acknowledged, this judgment alone may not prove to be useful to alleviate agony at the police station level and the trial levels."
"The problem is that the fear or apprehension which delayed the Supreme Court verdict is too big at the trial level where prosecution happens."
The charges against Bibi date back to a hot day in 2009, when she went to get water for her and her fellow farmworkers. Two Muslim women refused to drink from a container used by a Christian.
A few days later, a mob accused her of blasphemy. She was convicted and sentenced to death.
During the appeal hearing on October 8, a three-member panel of Supreme Court justices appeared to question the case against her, with Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, considered Pakistan's top expert in criminal law, listing flaws in the proceedings.
"I don't see any derogatory remarks vis-a-vis the holy Quran as per the FIR," added Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, referring to the initial complaint filed in the case.
Bibi's family and her lawyer maintain that she never insulted the Prophet Muhammad.
In previous hearings, her attorney, Saiful Malook, pointed to contradictions in witness testimonies.
The two Muslim women who pressed charges against Bibi denied they quarrelled with her, saying her outbursts against Islam were unprovoked.
Reema Omer, Legal Adviser, ICJ South Asia told TRT World that the court's landmark decision would not necessarily usher reforms in the country's blasphemy laws since the ruling was based on procedural and technical flaws.
"The reasons for Asia Bibi’s acquittal include an unexplained delay in the registration of the criminal complaint, material inconsistencies in the testimonies of prosecution witnesses, wrongful reliance on Asia Bibi’s extra-judicial “confession,” and failure to take into account the circumstances of the blasphemy allegations, including a “quarrel”, possibly about Asia Bibi’s faith. These led to the SC’s conclusion that the prosecution failed to discharge its burden to prove Asia Bibi’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt."
"The Supreme Court also noted that the context indicates the charges could have arisen from a “false allegation” of blasphemy, echoing concerns also raised by the ICJ that the blasphemy laws in Pakistan have typically become an instrument of personal vendettas and malicious motivations."
"Justice Khosa in his opinion has questioned the negligence of the police, prosecutors and judges that allowed the injustice against Asia Bibi. Given that there were such fundamental flaws in the case, why did it take eight long years for Asia Bibi to be acquitted?"
"While the judgment contains no directions for any disciplinary or other action against them, we can hope that that police, prosecution and judges keep Justice Khosa’s observations in mind when dealing with other blasphemy allegations."
The mere rumour of blasphemy can ignite mob violence and lynchings in Pakistan, and combatting alleged blasphemy has become a central rallying cry for religious groups.
Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was shot and killed by one of his guards in 2011 for defending Bibi and criticising the misuse of the blasphemy law.
My observation on minorities: A man/nation is judged by how they support those weaker than them not how they lean on those stronger— Salmaan Taseer (@SalmaanTaseer) December 24, 2010
The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, has been celebrated as a martyr by some religious groups since he was hanged for the killing, with millions visiting a shrine set up for him near Islamabad.
Protests across the country
Ahead of the verdict, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a cleric who leads the TLP, which emerged out of the protest movement in 2016 against the execution of Qadri, called on his supporters to gather in all major cities to express their love for the prophet and to protest if Asia Bibi is released.
His supporters responded by burning tyres and blocking roads in major cities across the country as law enforcement personnel watched on and urged demonstrators to disperse peacefully.
Talking about the unrest in the aftermath of the court's decision Mualana Ashrafi said, "The entire country is out in protest, but it is a peaceful protest. It is a right to protest peacefully, and the government has the responsibility to control if anyone creates chaos. For now, we are not seeing the government anywhere."
Speaking about the court's verdict Shahbaz Taseer, son of slain governor Salman Taseer, told TRT World, "The verdict clearly states what my father was saying all those years ago. She is innocent. This day is a huge victory for Asia Bibi and my father. Today justice has been served. We have a long way to go before these draconian laws are amended but today one victim gets justice. Pakistan Zindabad."
Pakistan Zindabad— Shahbaz Taseer (@ShahbazTaseer) October 31, 2018
Local channels have also toned down their coverage of the reaction in the aftermath of the court announcing its verdict, as is the case in most similar situations in the country.
News blackout about crippling protests wont address the issue. Some of us had warned about not letting genies out of the bottle. We were ridiculed, trolled. Now the chickens are coming home to roost. — at a great cost to the country's image and public life. pic.twitter.com/jvCCGIhuxJ— Syed Talat Hussain (@TalatHussain12) October 31, 2018
#AsiaBibi update: Churches, Christian minority communities and schools are on high alert as videos emerge of protests in #Karachi following the Supreme Court Judgement #Pakistan pic.twitter.com/l5X9tu3lsH— Barnabas Fund (@BarnabasFund) October 31, 2018
Rizvi, a preacher paralysed from the waist down following a road accident, has brought tens of thousands of people to the streets for past rallies as well.
His party called on Wednesday for the death of the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the two other judges who overturned Asia Bibi's death sentence.
The TLP leader has also called for the ousting of Prime Minister Imran Khan's government over the case.
TLP calling on soldiers and Generals of #Pakistan Army to revolt against COAS Bajwa, calls for action against judges and PM @ImranKhanPTI whom they have labelled as Yahoodi bacha...— Ovais Jafar (@ovaisjafar) October 31, 2018
cc: @peaceforchange @fawadchaudhry pic.twitter.com/H1VFFB1CQl
"The patron in chief of TLP, Muhammad Afzal Qadri, has issued the edict that says the chief justice and all those who ordered the release of Asia deserve death," said party spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi.
Politicians including the prime minister had invoked blasphemy during a general election this summer, vowing to defend the laws.
Analysts have warned that this political strategy could deepen sectarian fissures and potentially spill into violence.
Someone sent me this video. I am appalled and disgusted after watching this. Where is our PM? Why is the government silent? What the hell is going on? #Pakistan #PTI #AasiaBibiVerdict pic.twitter.com/5J2L3x7ojM— sarahrizvi (@sarahrizvi) October 31, 2018
Government bans on rallies in support of convicted murderer Qadri have fallen on deaf ears and proved ineffective in the past.
"Another problem is that when government chooses to prosecute these cases what should the judges do? Prosecutors literally play in (to) the hands of extremists. Unless the prosecution backed strongly by provincial government shows courage to not to prosecute blasphemy especially the false cases, and all of them are false, we cannot hope to see a change which is worth appreciating.
"They decide to not decide the case. Or decide it the way the complainant wants. There is no concept of showing uprightness and deciding on the basis of principles. No one is ready to take risk," Jamal further said.
Critics of the blasphemy law have said it is used to settle personal scores or to attack minority communities.
Pakistan's Supreme Court also called on politicians in October 2015 to ensure false blasphemy accusations were not made, warning that in Islam a false accusation can be as serious as the blasphemy itself.