Christian acquitted of blasphemy faces final court hurdle

  • In this Oct. 13, 2016, file photo, Saiful Malook, left, then lawyer of Aasia Bibi, briefs media with Bibi’s husband Ashiq Masih outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad, Pakistan. The lawyer of a Pakistani Christian woman facing the final ruling on her fate is back in the country, vowing to fight the last legal hurdle with his client who faces death threats from Islamist radicals despite her acquittal in a blasphemy case. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash, File)

ISLAMABAD — A Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy faces a final legal hurdle in Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Tuesday that could guarantee her freedom, allowing her to join her daughters, who have fled to Canada where they have been given asylum.

The hearing is expected to go in favor of Aasia Bibi, who spent eight years on death row before being acquitted Oct. 31, said her lawyer Saiful Malook.

Following her acquittal, radical religious parties took to the streets to protest, calling for the judges’ deaths and the overthrow of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government and filing an 11th hour appeal to review the Supreme Court acquittal. The protests have been spearheaded by the radical Tehreek-e-Labbaik party, whose single point agenda is protection of Islam’s prophet Mohammad.

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 Shiite 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 has said she will leave the country as soon as her legal battles are fought. Malook, 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 farmworkers argued with Bibi and later accused her of insulting Islam’s prophet Mohammad. Bibi has steadfastly denied the charge.

Since her acquittal Bibi has spent her days in seclusion for fear of being targeted by angry mobs clamoring for her death. In her hideout, protected by Pakistani security, she has longed for her children, speaking almost daily to her daughters in Canada, according to a friend who was interviewed by The Associated Press. He asked not to be identified fearing reprisal from radical religious groups.

Following protests that accompanied her 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.

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

Pakistani police have stepped up security around the Supreme Court in Islamabad.


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