ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the October acquittal of a poor Christian woman, Asia Bibi, in a landmark blasphemy case, clearing the final legal obstacle in her path to freedom after eight years on death row.
Bibi's case had put an international spotlight on the abuse of Pakistan's blasphemy laws in many instances to settle personal scores and unfairly target religious minorities. If allowed to walk free, Bibi is widely expected to seek asylum abroad, most likely in Canada.
In October, the Supreme Court had acquitted Bibi of blasphemy charges but she has since been in hiding after religious hardliners held countrywide protests and filed a petition asking the court to review its decision. “This case does not have as many honest witnesses as it should have had ... and the petitioner has failed to point out any mistake in the court’s earlier verdict,” Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa remarked while hearing the case along with Justice Qazi Faez Isa and Justice Mazhar Alam Miankhel.
After the apex court freed Bibi last October, prayer leader Qari Muhammad Salaam had petitioned the court asking it to dismiss its earlier judgement and uphold the death sentence awarded in 2010.
Salaam’s lawyer Chaudhry Ghulam Mustafa demanded during court proceedings on Tuesday that a larger bench of justices be formed to hear the review petition and should include Islamic scholars and clerics.
“How is this a matter of religion?" the chief justice asked as he dismissed the petition.
Hailing the apex court’s verdict, Bibi’s lawyer Saif ul Malook said: “This is a landmark judgment in history of Pakistan. She is a free person now and can go anywhere in the world she wants."
Malook said the verdict was a "loud and clear message" to people to stop leveling false allegations of blasphemy against innocent ones.
Bib's ordeal began in 2009 when a dispute broke out between her and her Muslim coworkers at a berry farm because Asia had filled a jug of water for her colleagues. After the fight, the women accused Bibi of committing blasphemy by insulting the Quran and Prophet Muhammad and she was sentenced to death by a district court in 2010.
She spent eight years on death row until the Supreme Court finally acquitted her last year. But protesters poured into the streets in several Pakistani cities, forcing the government to take Bibi into protective custody on November 7.
“After nine years behind bars for a crime she didn’t commit, it is difficult to see this long overdue verdict as justice," Amnesty International’s South Asia Campaigner, Rimmel Mohydin, said in a statement. "But she should now be free to reunite with her family and seek safety in a country of her choice,” she said.