By Hannah Brockhaus
The Pakistan Supreme Court Wednesday overturned the death sentence of Asia Bibi, a Roman Catholic woman convicted of blasphemy in 2010, after reserving judgment on the verdict earlier this month.
Chief Justice Saqib Nisarm, who read out the verdict, said Oct. 31 that Bibi is free to leave the prison in Sheikhupura, Pakistan.
AFP news agency quoted Bibi’s reaction by phone following the ruling. “I can’t believe what I am hearing, will I go out now? Will they let me out, really?” she said.
The landmark verdict has been followed by protests from Islamic hardliners who support strong blasphemy laws in the country, and a heavy police presence was deployed at the Supreme Court in Islamabad to guard against a violent outbreak.
Asia Bibi’s daughter, Eisham Ashiq, 18, told Aid to the Church in Need: “I am so happy. I want to thank God. This is the most wonderful moment. I can’t wait to hug my mother and then celebrate with my family. I am grateful to God for listening to our prayers.”
“We are very happy. This is wonderful news, Asia Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, said. “We thank God very much that he’s heard our prayers – and the prayers of so many people who have longed for Asia Bibi’s release over all these years of suffering and anguish.”
In 2009, Bibi was accused of making disparaging remarks about the Islamic prophet Muhammad after an argument stemming from a cup of water. Bibi was harvesting berries with other farm workers when she was asked to get water from a well.
Another person saw her drinking water from a cup that had previously been used by Muslims, and informed Bibi that it was not proper for a Christian to use that cup, as she was unclean. An argument ensued, and Bibi was reported to a Muslim cleric five days later for her supposed blasphemy. Bibi and her family were the only Christians in the area, and had faced pressure to convert to Islam.
She was convicted of blasphemy in 2010, and was sentenced to death by hanging. She immediately appealed. The Lahore High Court upheld conviction in 2014, which she then appealed to the country’s Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed to hear her appeal in 2015.
Since her arrest, Bibi has garnered international support from numerous world leaders calling for her immediate release, including Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. In 2015, Pope Francis met with her daughter and offered prayers.
In Pakistan, Islamic hardliners have been calling for her execution since her initial conviction. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said that he supports the country’s harsh blasphemy laws.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws impose strict punishment on those who desecrate the Quran or who defame or insult Muhammad. Pakistan’s state religion is Islam, and around 97 percent of the population is Muslim.
Although the government has never executed a person under the blasphemy law, accusations alone have inspired mob and vigilante violence.
Blasphemy laws are reportedly used to settle scores or to persecute religious minorities; while non-Muslims constitute only three percent of the Pakistani population, 14 percent of blasphemy cases have been levied against them.
Many of those accused of blasphemy are murdered, and advocates of changing the law are also targeted by violence.