The Acquittal of Asia Bibi’s Case Sparks Protest Throughout Pakistan
Pakistan’s top court acquitted Asia Bibi on charges of blasphemy on Wednesday. Asia Bibi, a 53-year old Christian woman, has spent the last eight years in solitary confinement on charges of insulting the Prophet Muhammad during a quarrel with a group of Muslim women. While the acquittal is a victory for those who have long opposed the blasphemy laws, domestically and internationally, the case sparked massive protests in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad.
Protests were led by Islamist political party Tehreek-i-Labaik, TIL. Khadim Rizvi, the founding chairman of TIL, claimed that all three judges involved in the case are now liable to be killed.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has stated his support for the acquittal and has warned TIL to stop protests. Khan stated that the protests were “doing no service to Islam.” He explained that such protests were also anti-state and disrupted the everyday life of the ordinary people.
Many schools and businesses have been shut down amid the protests in major cities. Highways were also partially shut down, and hospitals were put on high alert.
However, this is not the first demonstration of outrage regarding this case. Shahbaz Bhatti, a federal minister for minority affairs, was shot and killed by the Taliban in 2011 for condemning the law. Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was also shot and killed by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, in 2011 for defending Asia Bibi.
Taseer was known for his vocal opposition to extremism and religious, political parties. He had previously been imprisoned in 1980, by military dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq for his outspoken beliefs.
It was under General Zia ul-Haq’s rule that insults against Islam were first introduced as a crime. He had been reprimanded by international authorities for using the law to persecute minorities in Pakistan. Christians and Hindus only account for about 1.6 percent of Pakistan’s population.
There are currently 77 other countries around the world that have criminalized blasphemy. A majority of which are predominantly Muslim countries, where punishments can be as severe as lashings, or even death sentence. Some European countries, including Germany, Denmark, Finland, and Austria, have active blasphemy laws and have prosecuted cases under these charges.
Judges at Pakistan’s Supreme Court found “glaring and stark” contradictions in the prosecutor’s case and “failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.” Many still worry for her safety after her release from prison. Asia Bibi has been offered asylum by other countries and is expected to leave Pakistan with her family.
Blasphemy charges in Pakistan have often been dealt with extrajudicial murder and mob attacks. Public support for blasphemy laws remains strong in Pakistan.
According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, there are currently 40 people on death row or serving life sentences on blasphemy charges in Pakistan. Since 1990, 74 people have been killed due to blasphemy allegations.
The acquittal of Asia Bibi remains a sign of hope for those who wish to remove blasphemy laws. “Justice has finally prevailed. The message must go out that the blasphemy laws will no longer be used to persecute the country's most vulnerable minorities," said Omar Waraich, the deputy director for South Asia at Amnesty International.