Top Pakistan court upholds Christian woman's blasphemy acquittal

Pakistan's top court upholds its acquittal of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, clearing the last legal hurdle and freeing Asia Bibi to leave the country in a move that dealt a blow to radical Islamists who had demanded her execution.

Move could pave way for Asia Bibi to seek asylum in Canada

Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman, sits next to the governor of Punjab province after visiting her in jail on Nov. 20, 2010. Her conviction for making derogatory remarks about Islam was overturned last October. (Asad Karim/Reuters)

Pakistan's top court on Tuesday upheld its acquittal of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, clearing the last legal hurdle and freeing Asia Bibi to leave the country in a move that dealt a blow to radical Islamists who had demanded her execution.

Following the landmark decision, Bibi will finally be able to join her daughters, who earlier fled to Canada where they have been given asylum.

Bibi's lawyer, Saiful Malook, said in an op-ed published by the Washington Post last month that his client's most likely destination would be Canada if she were allowed to leave Pakistan.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in November that talks were underway with Pakistani officials over the case, but he could not say more because of "a delicate domestic context."

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said in an emailed statement that "Canada is prepared to do everything we can to ensure the safety of Asia Bibi."

Malook, who returned to Islamabad after fleeing the country amid death threats, called the court decision a victory for Pakistan's Constitution and rule of law. The three-judge Supreme Court panel had "insisted on very strict proofs of blasphemy" and found none, he said.

Pakistan's Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, who led the panel of judges, dismissed the petition filed by radical religious leaders. The extremists had petitioned the court to overturn its acquittal and send her back to prison for execution. He said in court that Bibi's accusers were guilty of perjury and if the case had not been so sensitive, they should have been jailed for life.

"The image of Islam we are showing to the world gives me much grief and sorrow," Khosa said.

Bibi, who spent eight years on death row and has been under guard at a secret place since her acquittal last October, was overjoyed at the news she heard over the TV.

"'I am really gratefully to everybody. Now after nine years it is confirmed that I am free and I will be going to hug my daughters,'" a friend quoted Bibi as saying. The friend spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, fearing for his safety.

Following her October acquittal, radical religious parties took to the streets to protest, calling for the killing of judges who acquitted Bibi and for the overthrow of Prime Minister Imran Khan's government. They also filed the last-minute appeal for a review of the Supreme Court acquittal.

The protests were spearheaded by the radical Tehreek-e-Labbaik party, whose single-point agenda is protection of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

Controversial blasphemy law

Bibi's case goes to the core of one of Pakistan's most controversial issues — the blasphemy law, often used to settle scores or intimidate followers of minority religions, including minority Shia Muslims. A charge of insulting Islam can bring the death penalty.

But the accusation on its own is sometimes enough to whip up vengeful mobs, even if the courts acquit defendants. A provincial governor who defended Bibi was shot and killed, as was a government minority minister who dared question the blasphemy law.

Bibi, who always insisted that she was innocent, has said she will leave the country as soon as her legal battles are over. Her lawyer, who fled the country after receiving death threats, returned to Pakistan for the final review.

Bibi's ordeal began on a hot day in 2009 when she brought water to fellow farmhands who refused to drink from the same container as a Christian woman. Two of her fellow farm workers argued with Bibi and later accused her of insulting Islam's Prophet.

Students from a religious seminary shout slogans as they demand punishment for Bibi during a rally in Karachi on Nov. 26, 2010. (Athar Hussain/Reuters)

Following protests after Bibi's acquittal, the authorities arrested radical clerics Khadim Hussain Rizvi and Mohammad Afzal Qadri, both leaders of the Tehreekk-e-Labbaik party, and several of their followers for destroying public property during rallies against Bibi and for inciting their followers to violence. The clerics and the others remain in custody.

The cleric petitioning the court for Bibi's return to death row, Qari Salam, is linked with Rizvi's Tehreek-e-Labbaik party.

The party said Monday it will not accept any decision in favour of Bibi's release and asked its followers to prepare for more mass protests.

Pakistani police stepped up security around the Supreme Court in Islamabad ahead of its decision Tuesday.