The Supreme Court of Pakistan has sparked outrage in the Muslim-majority nation by overturning a death sentence handed down to a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy.
Farm worker and mother-of-five Asia Bibi, 47, was sentenced to hanging in 2010 after being accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed.
The allegations stem back to a row the previous June when three Muslim co-workers refused to drink from a container of water fetched by Bibi. The group of women claimed the bowl was “unclean” because it had been used by a member of the Christian minority, who make up less than 2% of the Pakistani population. When the women demanded that Bibi convert to Islam, she refused and allegedly insulted the prophet three times.
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“She was later beaten up at her home, during which her accusers say she confessed to blasphemy,” reports the BBC.
Insulting Islam’s prophet is punishable by death under Pakistani law, and “blasphemy accusations stir such emotions they are almost impossible to defend against”, notes ABC News.
Bibi has always maintained her innocence, but has spent most of the past eight years in solitary confinement on death row.
However, today a three-member Supreme Court panel ruled that her conviction was based on flimsy evidence and that the prosecution had “categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt”.
Chief Justice Saqib Nisar said: “Her conviction is set aside and she is to be relieved forthwith if not required in other charges.”
Justice Asif Khosa added: “It is ironical that in the Arabic language the appellant’s name Asia means ‘sinful’, but in the circumstances of the present case she appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘more sinned against than sinning’.”
Twitter users also noted the use of a religious passage from the Koran in the court’s statement, known as a “Hadith”.
The Supreme Court was “praised for its bravery in the face of threats of violence and protest from the country’s Islamist groups”, says The Guardian. Widespread clashes are already being reported between religious extremists and supporters of Bibi in the wake of the ruling.
Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director for Amnesty International, described the verdict as a “landmark decision”.
“The message must go out that the blasphemy laws will no longer be used to persecute the country’s most vulnerable minorities,” he said, adding on Twitter that “justice has prevailed”.
But those who have spoken out in support of Bibi have made themselves targets of Islamists in Pakistan, according to the nation’s English-language newspaper Dawn. “In 2011, former Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who spoke out in support of Bibi, was gunned down in broad daylight in Islamabad,” the paper notes.
Pakistan’s legal framework has also been heavily weighted against Bibi. She appealed at the Lahore High Court in 2014, but the death sentence was upheld, even though the court acknowledged “possible violations of the right of a fair trial, particularly the right to an adequate defence”, says Dawn.
Meanwhile, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has stated that Pakistan’s mandatory death sentence for blasphemy “constitutes a violation of the right to life and the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment”, and is a “flagrant violation of Pakistan’s international human rights obligations”.
Large crowds gathered outside the court in Islamabad on Wednesday demanding that the execution be carried out. Bibi has been offered asylum by several countries and is expected to leave Pakistan indefinitely.
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