Protests, Death Threats Roil Pakistan After Acquittal of Christian on Death Row for Blasphemy

By Patrick Goodenough | November 1, 2018 | 4:31am EDT
Khadim Hussain Rizvi, leader of the hardline Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party, is urging supporters to target Supreme Court judges and do whatever is necessary to prevent Asia Bibi from leaving the country. (Screen capture: YouTube)

( – Islamic radicals in Pakistan threatened to kill judges and urged soldiers to mutiny, calling on supporters to wreak havoc across the country in response to the Supreme Court’s acquittal of a Christian woman sentenced to death for “blaspheming” Mohammed.

One radical cleric said he was issuing a fatwa calling for the judges who overturned Asia Bibi’s conviction and sentence to be killed, and another, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi, incited followers to target the judges and Asia Bibi herself.

“What is the purpose of our lives if we are unable to protect the honor of our beloved prophet?” Rizvi said in a video clip message after Wednesday’s court announcement. “Do not desist from punishing all those responsible for protecting Asia, and do whatever is necessary to stop her from fleeing Pakistan.”

Prime Minister Imran Khan in a televised message appealed for calm, warning hardliners blocking highways and thoroughfares and vowing that “the state will fulfil its duty [to] protect people’s property and lives.”

Khan, who took office in August – following an election campaign during which he defended the blasphemy laws – said those inciting violence were “doing no service to Islam” but working for their own political gain.

He also defended the government against any accusation of insufficient piety, recalling its activism in response to comments and caricatures insulting Mohammed in Europe.

Demonstrations were reported in Karachi, Lahore and other major cities. More protests are being planned for Friday, after noon prayers. Security has been beefed up and hospitals put on alert, according to local media reports.

“Christians have been bracing themselves for expected violence following the verdict,” said the Pakistan Christian Post.

The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad advised American citizens to avoid crowds, exercise extreme caution and “keep a low profile,” noting that past demonstrations have seen “violent altercations.”

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. (Screen capture: YouTube)

The uproar has prompted fresh fears for Asia Bibi’s safety, once she is released from her prison in the central city of Multan.

More than 65 people have reportedly been murdered in Pakistan since 1990 over allegations of blasphemy, some at the hands of enraged mobs. Victims include a High Court judge, a Christian cabinet minister, and a provincial governor who spoke out against Asia Bibi’s conviction.

“While this is a day of victory and celebration for Asia Bibi, her family, and all those who have relentlessly prayed for her, Asia and Christians in Pakistan need continued prayers.,” said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which has long advocated for her freedom.

“The death threats that have been issued against Asia and the justices should be taken seriously. We urge the government of Pakistan to provide necessary security to Asia and give her a safe passage to a place of peace and security.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also urged the authorities in Pakistan to ensure Asia Bibi’s safety upon her release.

“We are worried about the safety of Asia Bibi and her family,” said Christian Solidarity International. “In Pakistan they are in great danger of becoming victims of mob violence. We urge the Pakistani authorities to guarantee their safety while they are still in Pakistan.”

Naveed Walter, president of the NGO Human Rights Focus Pakistan, urged the government to provide tight security for Asia Bibi until she can be relocated to a safe place.

The TLP, a party established in 2015, became Pakistan’s fifth-largest party in terms of national support in elections last summer. Its campaign platform had focused on punishment for blasphemers.

It attracts support from the Barelvi movement of Sunni Islam, known for its zeal for Mohammed and the Qur’an.

Other, more mainstream religious parties, also condemned the Supreme Court verdict, with some lawmakers staging a walkout from parliament in protest.

The leader of one such Islamist party, Siraj ul-Haq of Jamaat-e-Islami, was quoted by The News of Karachi as saying the government must put Asia Bibi on an “exit control list” to prevent her from fleeing the country, charging that Western governments were preparing to airlift her to a foreign destination.

‘Mixing truth with falsehood’

Asia Bibi was arrested in 2009 and convicted the following year of blaspheming Mohammed. She became the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws. The allegations arose during a dispute with Muslim fellow-workers over shared drinking water.

The Supreme Court judges ruled that the case against her was based on questionable evidence, citing “material contradictions and inconsistent statements of the witnesses.” They said her purported confession had been made in front of a mob of angry Muslims “threatening to kill her.”

The judges suggested that those who brought the allegations against Asia Bibi had themselves defamed Mohammed.

“Blasphemy is a serious offense, but the insult of the appellant’s religion and religious sensibilities by the complainant party and then mixing truth with falsehood in the name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad was also not short of being blasphemous.”

Judges in past blasphemy trials have faced accusations of blasphemy themselves, and the ruling was heavily punctuated with references from the Qur’an and Hadiths.

With some 207 million people, Pakistan is the world’s sixth most populous nation, and second most populous Muslim-majority country. Fewer than four million are Christians.

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