ISLAMABAD / LAHORE (Reuters) – Pakistan's Supreme Court on Wednesday released a Christian woman from the death penalty for blasphemy against Islam and lifted her conviction. It triggered angry protests and death threats from an ultra-religious party and cheers from human rights lawyers.
Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) followers sing slogans after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam during a protest in Peshawar, Pakistan on October 31
Asia Bibi, mother of four, has been living on death row since 2010, when she became the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws, according to critics is strict and often abused.
She was convicted for allegedly derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to drinking water from her glass because she was not Muslim.
Bibi has always denied blasphemy.
The case outraged Christians around the world and was a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who wanted to help Bibi were murdered.
Supreme Judge Saqib Nasir, who headed a three-person bank set up specifically for the call, quoted the Koran in its verdict: "Tolerance is the basic principle of Islam," and religion condemns injustice and oppression. Fatalities
Supporters of the Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), which was founded to support blasphemy laws, immediately condemned the ruling and blocked streets in the major cities of Lahore
The leadership of the TLP demanded the death of the colonel Richter's Nasif and two other judges in the jury.
"The patron of the TLP, Muhammad Afzal Qadri, has issued a decree stating that the Supreme Judge and those who have ordered the release of Asia deserve to die," Party spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi said.
The party also demanded the overthrow of the government of the new prime minister Imran Khan.
The TLP was formed from a movement that supported a bodyguard who murdered Lahore Governor Salman Taseer for serving on Bibi in 2011. The Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also killed when he was called for release.
Bibi's lawyer called the verdict on Wednesday "good news" for Pakistan.
"Asia Bibi has finally brought justice," lawyer Saiful Mulook told Reuters. "Pakistan's Supreme Court must be honored that it upheld the law of the country and was not under pressure."
Street protests and blockades of major roads spread through the afternoon, paralyzing parts of Islamabad, Lahore and other cities. Some schools in Islamabad sent the students home early and long rows of cars were forming at petrol stations, while residents were worried about long protests.
In November, TLP carried out a crippling blockade of Islamabad after changing a religious vow that amounts to blasphemy. In clashes with the police, seven people were killed and more than 200 injured. The TLP supporters were dispersed only after an agreement with the military.
BLASPHEMY LAW CRITICIZED
The insult of the Islamic Prophet is punishable under Pakistani law by death, and blasphemous accusations elicit such emotions against which it is almost impossible to defend them. Dozens were killed after blasphemy claims, sometimes from human mobs.
Right-wing groups say the blasphemy law is exploited by both religious extremists and ordinary Pakistanis to identify personal values. The law does not clearly define blasphemy, and evidence may not be reproduced in court for fear of re-offending.
Bibi's representatives claim to have been involved in a dispute with their neighbors and their prosecutors have contradicted each other.
In February, Bibi's husband Ashiq Masih and one of her daughters met Pope Francis shortly before Rome's ancient Coliseum, which one evening was reddened in solidarity with persecuted Christians and especially Bibi.
The Pope said to Bibi's daughter, "I often think of your mother and I pray for her."
Christians make up only about two percent of the Pakistani population and are sometimes discriminated against there.
"This is a milestone verdict. For the last eight years, Asia Bibi's life has been in limbo, "said Omar Waraich, South Asia Deputy Director of Amnesty International.
"There must be a message that the blasphemy laws are no longer being used to persecute the country's most vulnerable minorities."
Letter from Kay Johnson and Drazen Jorgic. Editing by Lincoln Feast, Michael Perry, and Nick Macfie