Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Tuesday (29) rejected a challenge against its decision to acquit Asia Bibi of blasphemy, igniting calls for the Christian mother to finally be allowed to leave the country where she still faces threats to her life.
The ruling by the country’s highest court paves the way for Bibi — whose whereabouts the government refuses to reveal for fear she will be targeted by vigilantes — to seek asylum abroad, with speculation rampant she will go to a North American or European country.
Bibi spent eight years awaiting execution before the Supreme Court overturned her death sentence for blasphemy in October last year, igniting days of violent Islamist protests.
The government allowed a petition demanding an appeal against the court’s acquittal as part of a deal with the protesters to end the violence.
But Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, considered Pakistan’s top expert in criminal law and who helped draft Bibi’s acquittal, threw the petition out “on merit” Tuesday.
Moments after the ruling was announced, Bibi’s lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook hinted that his client’s move could be imminent.
“I think at this time she is here (in Pakistan) — but by tonight, I don’t know,” he told reporters outside the court.
Extremists “said they would kill her despite the judgement of the Supreme Court,” he said. “Therefore, I think she should leave the country.”
“She should now be free to reunite with her family and seek safety in a country of her choice,” Amnesty International said in a statement.
Unconfirmed Pakistani reports claim her children have already fled to Canada.
– Judge frustrated –
Earlier Tuesday the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party, which led violent protests demanding Bibi’s execution last year, called for its members to be ready for action.
But most of its leaders remain in detention after a government crackdown, and few protesters could be seen at the court in Islamabad, where security appeared as normal.
That did not prevent those who did show up for the hearing from calling for violence against Bibi prior to the court’s ruling, however.
“If she goes abroad, don’t Muslims live there?” Hafiz Ehtisham Ahmed, an Islamist activist linked to the extremist Red Mosque in Islamabad, told AFP.
“If she goes out of Pakistan… anybody can kill her there.”
Chief Justice Khosa expressed frustration at the furious reaction to Bibi’s case by an extremist minority.
“Is this the face of Islam that we want to show to the world?” he told the packed courtroom.
He had harsh words for those who first brought the case against Bibi, and the Islamists who over the years have used it to ignite violence, threaten judges, and call for mutiny within the military.
“We have shown a lot of restraint” against the complainants, he said, saying that in any other case they would have been charged with perjury.
As for the protesters, he was incredulous, demanding they show him “one mistake in the judgement and we will immediately correct it”.
“You block the entire country because a decision is not in your favour?” he told the court. “Tell me how we can rely on false witnesses.”
Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, the lawyer who filed a petition on behalf of the cleric who made the original complaint against Bibi in 2009, remained unmoved.
“All religious scholars also verified later that this agreement was wrong. This was wrong,” he said outside court.
– Inflammatory issue –
Blasphemy remains a massively inflammatory issue in Pakistan, where even unproven accusations of insulting Islam can spark lynchings.
Many cases see Muslims accusing Muslims, and rights activists say blasphemy charges are frequently used to settle personal scores.
Minorities — particularly Christians — are often caught in the crossfire.
Mere calls to reform the law have provoked violence, most notably the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province who offered support Bibi, by his own bodyguard in Islamabad in 2011.
“This shameful delay in enforcing Asia Bibi’s rights only reinforces the need for the Pakistani government to repeal the blasphemy laws as soon as possible, as well as other laws that discriminate against religious minorities and put their lives in danger,” Amnesty stated Tuesday.
“We have to protect our minorities, we have to take them together, this is the beauty of Islamic society,” Chief Justice Khosa said during Tuesday’s hearing.
The allegations against Bibi date back to 2009, when Muslim women accused her of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed, a charge punishable by death under Pakistan law.
The accusation emerged from an argument after Bibi was asked to fetch water while working in the fields, but the women objected to her touching the water bowl as a non-Muslim.
Bibi has denied the charges, and her prosecution rallied international rights groups, politicians and religious figures.
Pope Benedict XVI called for her release in 2010, while in 2015 her daughter met his successor Pope Francis.