Pakistan Court Frees Christian Woman Sentenced in Blasphemy Case

(Bloomberg) -- Pakistan’s Supreme Court scrapped the death sentence of a Christian woman eight years after she was convicted for blasphemy in the Muslim-majority country in a verdict that could anger right-wing religious groups.

“The prosecution had failed to prove its case against” Aasia Bibi, the judgment by a three-member panel of justices headed by Chief Justice Saqib Nisar posted on the court’s website read. “She is acquitted of the charge by extending the benefit of doubt to her.” The defense lawyer, Saif-ul-Malook, said by phone Bibi is free to go as there is no other case pending against her.

The verdict, given on an appeal by Bibi against the punishment handed down by a trial court in 2010, may trigger violent demonstrations by the country’s Islamist groups, who are sensitive to what they call insults to the Prophet Muhammad.

Such protests will distract Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, which is attempting to deal with an economy in crisis due to dwindling finances. Khan is trying to secure a $6 billion bailout from either China or the International Monetary Fund after Saudi Arabia pledged the same amount in a support package this month.

Political Assassination

The case came into the spotlight a few months after Bibi’s conviction, when the then governor of central Punjab province Salman Taseer was killed by one of his police guards for defending her and calling for changes in the law to stop its misuse. Later, the guard Mumtaz Qadri was hanged for the assassination -- a move that infuriated supporters of firebrand Muslim cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who launched a violent drive to block any possible changes in the law.

“A segment will obviously make hue and cry,” political analyst Ayaz Amir said in a phone interview in Islamabad. Rizvi’s politics are "based on blasphemy and its related matters.”

Bilal Liaqat, a spokesman for Rizvi’s group, said the party’s loyalists have been told to hold nationwide protests.

A trial court sentenced Bibi to death on complaints that she insulted Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Moderate Muslims have always ruled Pakistan but right-wing religious groups -- despite having little presence in the country’s parliament -- have blocked moves to amend controversial legislation impacting non-Muslims or women.

A cabinet minister of former premier Shahid Khaqan Abbasi had to step down last November for overseeing changes to a reference to the Prophet Muhammad in a lawmakers’ oath after members of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, Rizvi’s party blocked a main highway to Islamabad for several weeks. Then Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal also survived a gun attack by a man allied to the group.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.