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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 February 2019

Pakistan's top court upholds Asia Bibi blasphemy acquittal

She is now free to leave Pakistan having spent eight years on death row

After eight years on death row for blasphemy Asia Bibi was freed from jail. AP
After eight years on death row for blasphemy Asia Bibi was freed from jail. AP

A Pakistani Christian farmhand sentenced to hang on trumped up blasphemy charges is finally free to leave the country after the supreme court ended her decade-long ordeal.

Asia Bibi is expected to flee Pakistan soon to join her daughters in Canada after a bench of three judges upheld her earlier acquittal.

The judges including the chief justice took an hour-and-a-half to hear a petition from Muslim hardliners against her acquittal, before dismissing it.

Their decision removed the final legal hurdle for the mother-of five, who has spent nearly 10 years in custody, including eight years on death row.

A friend told AP that Mrs Bibi had said she was “really gratefully to everybody, now after nine years it is confirmed that I am free and I will be going to hug my daughters."

Her lawyer Saiful Malook said: “Complete justice has now been done.”

The court's decision should act as a starting point to halt the misuse of Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws, he said.

Mrs Bibi's nightmare began as she harvested falsa berries on farmland outside the Punjab village of Ittan Wali in June 2009. She rowed with two Muslim women co-workers after they refused to drink from a water vessel that she had used. They later complained to a local cleric that she had insulted the Prophet Mohammed and she was hauled before the village where the cleric alleged she confessed. She was put on trial and sentenced to death.

Tuesday's supreme court decision upheld an October ruling that had overturned her conviction, criticising an apparently forced confession and inconsistencies in witness statements. Mrs Bibi had always denied blasphemy.

Yet October’s acquittal touched off three days of widespread protest organised by the hardline anti-blapshemy Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party. Disruption was so widespread that the government said it would allow a petition against the acquittal, as part of a deal to end the protests. Mrs Bibi was not allowed to leave the country as part of the deal and has lived in protective custody ever since.

Blasphemy is an incendiary issue in Pakistan and Mrs Bibi's case exposed deep divisions. Two senior politicians who took up her case and demanded reform of the blasphemy laws were assassinated. Last year's acquittal prompted death threats against the judges and even calls for a mutiny from within the ranks of the military.

Tuesday's ruling was made amid heightened security, with paramilitary police on hand to quell demonstrations.

It also caused jubilation worldwide among church groups, which have campaigned to highlight Mrs Bibi's plight and say it reflects the persecution of Pakistan's Christian minority.

Qari Mohammad Salaam, the village cleric who first brought the complaint against Mrs Bibi and later filed the petition against her acquittal, said he would abide by the decision.

“We will follow the legal course. We will have patience and not take the law into our own hands, but we will always consider her sinful,” he said.

A mere accusation of blasphemy can quickly trigger mob violence in Pakistan and many incidents end in vigilante justice. Human rights campaigners say Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which demand the death penalty, are used to subdue religious minorities including Shiite Muslims and Christians.

About 100 blasphemy cases have been registered since 2011 and around 40 people are either awaiting the death sentence or serving life sentences. Since 1990 at least 62 people have been murdered before a trial could take place.

Two Christian brothers were last month sentenced to death by a district judge after being convicted of posting insulting articles and portraits of the Prophet Mohammed on their website.

But Pakistani Christians say Mrs Bibi’s release offers them a sliver of hope.

Wilson Chowdhry, Chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, said: "Her freedom is a massive step in the advancement of equality and justice in Pakistan.”

Mrs Bibi and her family fear they cannot live freely in Pakistan where many hardliners continue to call for her execution. They have pleaded to be granted asylum abroad. Her daughters fled to Canada in December and the country is expected to be her next destination. Last year the country's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, acknowledged it was in talks with Pakistan and said Canada was a “welcoming country”.

Updated: January 29, 2019 06:57 PM

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