Asia Bibi: Pakistani court upholds acquittal decision | News | DW | 29.01.2019

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Asia Bibi: Pakistani court upholds acquittal decision

Pakistan's top court has dismissed an appeal against the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. The decision has paved the way for Bibi's departure from Pakistan, where Islamists want her dead.

Pakistan's Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected an appeal against its decision last year to acquit Asia Bibi, who had spent eight years on death row on blasphemy charges.

The review petition was filed by Qari Muhammad Salaam, a cleric in Punjab's Nankana Sahib area, who had first reported Bibi's alleged blasphemy.

Read more: The case of Asia Bibi in Pakistan

Bibi, who was acquitted by the Islamic country's top court on October 31, was released from jail in November, 2018, after days of violent protests by hardline Islamists. She is currently under the "protective custody" of Pakistani authorities.

"It is a very welcome development that Asia Bibi's horrific ordeal has finally come to an end. It was a travesty that it took so long," Saroop Ejaz, a lawyer working for Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, told DW. This ruling, he added, should also be taken as an opportunity by the government to reform the criminal justice system.

Bibi, an impoverished mother of five, was arrested in June 2009, after her neighbors complained she had made derogatory remarks about Islam's Prophet Muhammad. A year later, Bibi was sentenced to death despite strong opposition from national and international human rights groups.

In 2014, when Bibi's death sentence had been upheld by the Lahore High Court, rights group Amnesty International called the verdict a "grave injustice."

Despite her October acquittal by the Supreme Court, Bibi was forced to remain in prison due to Islamist protests.

Her husband, Ashiq Masih, had appealed to US President Donald Trump for asylum, along with British Prime Minister Theresa May and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Watch video 02:03

Pakistanis welcome arrest of Asia Bibi protesters

A sensitive issue

It is one of the most high-profile blasphemy cases in Pakistan, with international rights groups and Western governments demanding a fair trial in Bibi's case. In 2015, her daughter met with Pope Francis, who offered prayers for her mother at the Vatican.

Blasphemy is a sensitive topic in Pakistan, where 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslims. Rights activists have demanded reforms of the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. Activists say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas.

Following the Supreme Court verdict of Bibi's acquittal, the far-right Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) party took to the streets and brought Pakistan to a standstill for three days before striking a deal with the government. Authorities agreed not to oppose a review petition filed in the Supreme Court to reverse the verdict against Bibi and placed her name in an Exit Control List.

Ahead of Tuesday's hearing, the TLP had warned the top court judges against giving "judicial relief" to Bibi.

In a video message, TLP official Shafiq Amini said that the government had promised them a Sharia review of Bibi's acquittal. He told TLP supporters to "be prepared" and that "no one should expect a compromise from our end."

But experts say the TLP is unlikely to cause trouble for the government this time around as most of the group's officials and cadre are incarcerated.

Read more: British activists examine Shariah law, Pakistan's Asia Bibi case

Watch video 00:46

Asia Bibi's lawyer: 'The West must support me'

Persecution of religious minorities

Pakistan's Christians and other religious minorities have often complained of legal and social discrimination in their country. In the past few years, many Christians and Hindus have been brutally murdered over unproven blasphemy allegations.

In one case, a young Christian girl with Down Syndrome was accused in August 2012 of burning pages upon which verses of the Koran were inscribed. Rimsha Masih was taken into police custody and only released months later, when charges were dropped. The case caused an uproar in her hometown and beyond and sparked riots and violence against Christians in the region. In 2013, she and her family relocated to Canada.

In 2014, a Christian couple were beaten to death for allegedly desecrating a copy of the Koran. Their bodies were subsequently burned in a brick kiln.

In September last year, a Christian man in Pakistan was sentenced to death for sharing "blasphemous" material on WhatsApp.

Read more: Pakistan dangles between hope and despair over minority rights

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