ISLAMABAD - A Christian woman Aasia Bibi took a sigh of relief after nine years when Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday acquitted her of blasphemy charges and ordered for her release.

The landmark verdict sparked demonstrations in major cities across the country.

Amid tight security, at Constitution Avenue, due to extreme sensitivity of the case, the top court also set aside the judgment of Lahore High Court (LHC), wherein she was awarded death sentence.

“This appeal (of setting aside LHC order) is allowed,” the top court ruled adding, “The judgments of the High Court as well as the trial court are reversed.”

The appeal of Aasia Bibi was heard by a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar and comprising Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Miankhel.

However, when the court timing started, the regular bench headed by the CJP and comprising Justice Ijazul Ahsan and Justice Sajjad Ali Shah entered the jam-packed courtroom.

The chief justice was handed over a sealed envelope by a court official containing the fate of 50 years old Aasia Bibi thereafter the case number was called for pronouncement of judgment.

The judgment was announced by author judge, the chief justice.

“Consequently, the conviction as also the sentence of death awarded to the appellant (Aasia Bibi) is set aside and she is acquitted of the charge. She be released from jail forthwith, if not required in any other criminal case,” Justice Saqib read the operative part of the judgment.

The atmosphere of the Courtroom No 1, where the judgment was announced, was peaceful due to beefed up security outside the courtroom.

An element of seriousness was quite conspicuous though and signs of stress were visible among the representatives of international media.

Mostly lawyers were in the audience. A few civil society members were present in the court though, no famous social activist showed up.

Also, none of the family members of Aasia Bibi was present on the occasion of judgment announcement and the court decision was communicated to her and her family by the counsel Saiful Malook.

The case had gain prominence since the assassination of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer by his guard Mumtaz Qadri when the former spoke in favour of Aasia and demanded to stop the exploitation of Blasphemy Law in the country.

Later, Qadri was also awarded death sentence by the top court – thought a judgment authored by Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa.

The announcement of judgment in Aasia case soon rankled religious hardliners following which the law and order situation started deteriorating in the federal capital and rest of the country.

But the case of transfer of Islamabad Inspector General of Police (IGP) on alleged political influence caused interior secretary to keep sitting in the courtroom.

He left the court after Attorney General for Pakistan (AGP) Anwar Mansoor Khan requested the chief justice to let him go back to his office for handling the situation arising out of the judgment.

Public Reaction

Agencies add: Blasphemy is an incendiary charge and even unproven allegations of insulting Prophet Hazrat Muhammed (PBUH) or Islam can provoke death at the hands of vigilantes.

Violence instigated over the issue by extremists has led to loss of life and property in the past on a number of occasions.

Led by clerics and other hard line elements, approximately a thousand club-wielding demonstrators blocked Islamabad’s main highway after the verdict announcement.

Several roads and markets in the port city of Karachi and Punjab capital Lahore were also barricaded by protesters.

But the acquittal was met with near silence on the country’s airwaves as broadcasters appeared to be steer clear of covering the controversial topic.

Reaction of Aasia and her lawyer

Saiful Malook, counsel for Aasia Bibi, while talking to media persons termed the day as the happiest day of his life. He said that his client has been dispensed with justice after the accusations proved false.

Bibi appeared to be in state of disbelief after hearing that Pakistan’s Chief Justice Saqib Nisar had quashed her conviction nearly eight years after she was first sentenced to death.

“I can’t believe what I am hearing, will I go out now? Will they let me out, really?” Bibi told AFP by phone from prison after the ruling.

“I just don’t know what to say, I am very happy, I can’t believe it.”

Bibi was set to be released immediately according to the court, although there was no word if any security arrangements were being made for her protection.

Her legal team celebrated the court’s decision amid beefed-up security in Islamabad.

“The verdict has shown that the poor, the minorities and the lowest segments of society can get justice in this country despite its shortcomings,” Bibi’s lawyer Saiful Mulook told AFP.

“This is the biggest and happiest day of my life.”

Case history

The allegations against Bibi date back to 2009, when Muslim women she was labouring with in a field objected to sharing water with her because she was Christian.

After an argument, the women went to a local cleric and accused Bibi of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), a charge punishable by death under colonial-era legislation.

During the appeal hearing on October 8, a three-member panel of Supreme Court justices appeared to question the case against her, with Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, considered Pakistan’s top expert in criminal law, listing flaws in the proceedings.

“I don’t see any derogatory remarks vis-a-vis the Holy Quran as per the FIR,” added Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, referring to the initial complaint filed in the case.

 

SC acquits Asia Bibi