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Pakistan's High Court Acquits Asia Bibi, Christian Woman On Death Row For Blasphemy

Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a hardline religious political party chant slogans during a protest on Wednesday against the court decision to overturn the conviction of Asia Bib
Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a hardline religious political party chant slogans during a protest on Wednesday against the court decision to overturn the conviction of Asia Bibi.

Pakistan's Supreme Court on Wednesday announced the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Catholic woman who was convicted and sentenced to death in 2010 for blasphemy in a case that has divided the South Asian country and sparked international outrage.

Chief Justice Saqib Nisar read the ruling from the bench in Islamabad, saying the prosecution "categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt," the BBC reports.

Her original conviction stemmed from an argument with her Muslim women coworkers on a farm over whether Bibi, as a Christian, was pure enough to share their water. The incident led to allegations that she had blasphemed the Prophet Muhammad.

If her death sentence had been carried out, Bibi would have been the first person executed by the state under the blasphemy laws.

The Supreme Court's verdict was officially decided on Oct. 8, but not publicly announced until Wednesday.

Bibi, a wife and mother of two children and three stepchildren, was on death row and held in solitary confinement for more than eight years. A previous appeal hearing was adjourned in 2016 on a legal technicality.

Bibi's case has been extremely divisive in Pakistan. The hard-line religious right has repeatedly called for her to be hanged. Following the announcement of Wednesday's verdict, the Pakistani Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labaik, or TLP, called for the death of the court's chief justice and two other judges who overturned the conviction. The party also called for the outster of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The Associated Press reports:
"Ahead of the verdict, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a hard-line cleric who has brought tens of thousands of people into the streets for past rallies, called on his supporters to gather in all major cities to express their love for the prophet and to protest if Bibi is released. Authorities have stepped up security at churches around the country. Shortly after the ruling, hundreds of Islamists blocked a key road linking the city of Rawalpindi with the capital, Islamabad. Islamists in Pakistan's largest city of Karachi and in the northwestern city of Peshawar were also gathering for the protests. Similar rallies were held elsewhere. Police urged demonstrators to disperse peacefully."
Upon her release, Bibi is expected to leave the country, the AP says.

Her case has elicited international concernsince it first began.

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI called for her release. Pope Francis met with her family in 2015. In the same year, Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo declared Bibi an honorary citizen of the French capital.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws and the the capital punishment for breaking them has drawn concern from international rights organizations, "not least because they are sometimes misused to settle feuds, grab land, or persecute religious minorities by making false allegations," NPR's Phillip Reeves has reported.

The state has never executed anyone under the law, but vigilantes have taken the punishment of those accused into their own hands. A young Pakistani Christian accused of blasphemy was murdered by a mob in 2014.

The blasphemy laws were made more strict in the 1980s under the military government of Zia-ul Haq, who sought to shore up his power by "Islamicising" Pakistan's laws.

The laws are strongly supported by the country's religious right. A provincial governor who spoke out in favor of Bibi and against the blasphemy laws was assassinated in 2011 by his bodyguard, who was subsequently hailed as a martyr by hard-liners.

Most Pakistani politicians and officials prefer to avoid publicly discussing the blasphemy laws altogether because of the dangers involved, Reeves reports.
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org/.