(CNSNews.com) – Nine years after a dispute with fellow farm laborers saw Asia Bibi become the first Pakistani Christian woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy, the country’s highest court on Wednesday threw out the sentence, in a rare victory for one of the world’s most persecuted Christian minorities.
What comes next for Asia Bibi is uncertain, but supporters have argued that unless the 53-year-old mother leaves the country she will never be safe from Muslim zealots who believe she insulted their prophet.
In a case that has prompted concern and prayers around the world, a three-judge panel in the Supreme Court in Islamabad delivered the verdict on Wednesday morning local time, and ordered that she be set free.
Security has been tightened in the capital on Tuesday night. Radical Muslims had vowed to unleash havoc if the death penalty was set aside.
Asia Bibi (“Bibi” is an Urdu term meaning “Miss.” She is also known as Aasiya Noreen) has been incarcerated since June 2009 after Muslim co-workers alleged that she had defamed Mohammed during an argument over shared drinking water.
According to published accounts, her co-workers accused the non-Muslim among them of defiling the water, prompting her to say she did not believe Mohammed would hold such a view. A heated discussion ensued, during which the Muslims reportedly demanded that Asia Bibi convert to Islam. She refused.
Several days later a frenzied mob led by a local cleric attacked her, and police took her into custody, subsequently bringing criminal charges under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws.
In 2010 she was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death, and the decision was upheld by the Lahore High Court in Oct. 2014.
Asia Bibi’s drawn-out appeal against that ruling was finalized this year, and the Supreme Court said on October 8 it had reached a decision but declined to make it public immediately – even as Islamic hardliners took to the streets, again, demanding her death.
Her plight has drawn appeals for clemency from the Vatican, and campaigns in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere calling for her release.
The Asia Bibi case was also directly linked to the assassination of two Pakistani politicians in 2011. Federal minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, and Punjab province governor Salman Taseer, a moderate Muslim, were both killed by zealots angered by their public support for her.
Taseer was shot multiple times by a bodyguard who became a hero to millions of Barelvi radicals. He was tried, convicted and hanged in early 2016.
The Barelvi movement of Sunni Islam is known for its zeal for Mohammed, shari’a and the Qur’an, with many adherents expressing a willingness to die or kill for their prophet.
Since the October 8 Supreme Court announcement, Barelvis have held protests, threatening to bring cities to a standstill, and to harm to the judges if they show leniency.
Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a group headed by hardline cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, has suggested that a ruling in Asia Bibi’s favor would itself amount to blasphemy – implying that the judges responsible would therefore deserve death.
Murdering mobs and vigilante ‘justice’
The authorities have reason to be concerned. Apart from the assassinations of Taseer and Bhatti, others killed by assailants claiming to be protecting the honor of Mohammed include a High Court judge shot in his Lahore chambers in 1997 after acquitting a man who had earlier been convicted of blasphemy, and a lawyer shot in 2014 after agreeing to represent a university lecturer facing blasphemy charges.
Individuals accused of blasphemy have also been attacked by vigilante mobs. In one especially gruesome case, a Christian couple was burned alive in a brick kiln in 2014.
In 2012 Rimsha Masih, a young girl with Down syndrome, was accused of burning pages of a Qur’an teaching guide.
Local clerics called over mosque loudspeakers for the girl to be burned alive, and Christians’ homes were attacked by an angry mob. After police investigated allegations that a Muslim cleric had intentionally planted the pages in Rimsha’s bag containing papers to be burned, the charges were dropped. But her family was forced to flee after continuing threats of death, and it was later reported that they had been resettled in Canada.
Religious freedom advocates say Christians and other minorities are disproportionately targeted under the blasphemy laws. The penal code carries the death penalty for insulting Mohammed (section 295-C); life imprisonment for defiling the Qur’an (section 295-B); and shorter jail terms for vilifying any of Mohammed’s wives, relatives or “companions” (section 298-A).
While there are more than 40 people on death row after blasphemy convictions, according to the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), no executions have yet been carried out.
Pakistan is in fifth place in the latest annual Open Doors USA watchlist of “countries where it is most dangerous to follow Jesus.”
Despite its record, it has been a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council for almost the entirety of that body’s 13-year existence, and is currently again serving a term from 2018-2020.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent statutory watchdog, has called every year since 2002 for the State Department to name Pakistan a “country of particular concern” – a designation that can lead to punitive measures including sanctions.
The Bush and Obama State Department overruled the recommendation each year, as has the Trump administration so far, although last January it did place Pakistan on a second-tier “special watch list.”
More than 820,000 people have signed an ACLJ petition to the Pakistani government, calling for Asia Bibi’s freedom.