Pakistan Supreme Court Overturns Death Penalty For Blasphemy Charge Against Christian Woman

The Pakistani Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi of her blasphemy charges on Wednesday, remitting the death sentence that she had been awarded in 2010. Asia Bibi, a Christian farmhand in the Sheikhupura District of Punjab, was accused by her Muslim co-workers of insulting Prophet Mohammed. Asia was consequently arrested and sentenced to death by hanging by a local judge. Asia’s appeal against her sentence was dismissed by the Lahore High Court in 2014, but was subsequently accepted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2015. After numerous postponements, resignations and delays by judges, a panel finally came to a decision on 31 October 2018. The court ruled that Asia was free to go, calling the blasphemy charges levelled against her mere “concoction incarnate” and noting that her accusers gave inconsistent statements and “had no regard for the truth.”

Amnesty International Deputy South Asia Director Omar Waraich called the verdict “a landmark verdict and an important victory for religious tolerance in Pakistan.” In reflecting on the political and social compass of the case, which “used to rouse angry and violent mobs, justify the assassinations of two senior officials in 2011, and to intimidate the Pakistani state into submission,” he declared in a triumphant tone that “mercifully, justice has prevailed […] a clear message must be now go out that the blasphemy laws will no longer be used to persecute Pakistan’s long-suffering religious minorities.”

The verdict sparked nation-wide protests in Pakistan. Islamist fundamentalists, spearheaded by the rapidly growing Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party (TLP), call for the death of the Supreme Court judges and those who have worked to free Bibi from the death row. Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan initially stood firm, defending the acquittal of Asia Bibi and vowing to clamp down on the “enemies of the state” who protested the judicial decision. The Pakistani government has since capitulated to the TLP however, agreeing that it will not oppose petitions to reverse Bibi’s release and promising to impose a travel ban on Bibi in the meantime. Senior TLP leader Afzal Qadri has consequently publicly declared victory, claiming that “the government has almost accepted our maximum demands,” and that “we can come out again” should the government renege on their agreement.

Asia’s case has attracted considerable worldwide attention over the last eight years. Christian protection organizations such as the Voice of the Martyrs collected over 400,000 signatures in favour of her liberation; Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have both called for the sentence to be quashed. Prominent Pakistani politicians also fought for Asia’s freedom, but were met with fierce resistance from local Islamists. The Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer met with Asia in prison and campaigned staunchly for her release in 2011. He was subsequently gunned down by one of his own bodyguards in January of that year. Only months later, in March 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian cabinet member of Pakistan, was assassinated by gunmen in Islamabad following his voicing critiques against blasphemy laws.

Blasphemy laws are used to disproportionately target religious minorities in Pakistan. Amnesty International calls the laws “over-broad, vague and coercive”; more than often they are used to settle feuds and advance personal vendettas. So far the death penalty has never been upheld in blasphemy cases in Pakistan, but vigilante violence is common. Al-Jazeera notes that over 60 people have been murdered as a result of blasphemy charges since 1990. The Nation, a Lahore newspaper reported that 68% of respondents in Pakistan were in favor of repealing blasphemy laws in 2014, but Islamic extremists maintain a climate of fear that prevents all reforms from being enacted.

Pakistan courts are often pressured into prosecuting those accused of blasphemy in fear of the public outrage that such cases stir up. Lahore lawyer Muhammad Ali noted that “the main issue you face is a general mindset within the court, especially after Salman Taseer’s murder, that it is a matter that has become so sensitive that nobody really wants to touch it.”

Prime Minister Imran Khan stands in a difficult position, but should not cave to the demands of the violent extreme Islamist minority in Pakistan. By imposing a travel ban on Asia Bibi, Khan risks allowing her to be murdered by vigilantes. Asia’s lawyer has fled the country in the aftermath of the court ruling, fearing for his life. Asia hopes to escape to London, where her children and other family await her. Pakistan’s government must support the Supreme Court decision, and oppose attempts by opposition parties and fundamentalists to undermine the rule of law. Asia’s acquittal will be a victory for religious tolerance in Pakistan, and failure to stand behind the decision will reflect a lack of courage on the government’s part and show that power truly lies in the hands of Islamic extremists.