ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In a tensely awaited ruling Wednesday, Pakistan’s highest court spared the life of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, prompting celebrations among human rights activists but nationwide protests by Muslim religious parties, some of whose leaders called for the justices to be killed.
The angry outbursts drew a strong rebuke from Prime Minister Imran Khan, who addressed the nation in a video message Wednesday night as demonstrations and roadblocks persisted. Khan said that “the despicable language used by a small section of society against the army, judiciary and government is deplorable,” adding, “I appeal to you not to start a confrontation with the state.”
But the surprise ruling in the case of Asia Bibi, 47, a farmworker and mother of five who was accused of blasphemy by Muslim co-workers in 2009 after a dispute over sharing water in a sweltering berry field, seemed likely to intensify the confrontation between Pakistani authorities and leaders of the fast-growing anti-blasphemy movement that has flared repeatedly in the past year.
The Bibi case has been at the heart of that clash, because it led to the assassination of a provincial governor who had questioned the fairness of her treatment under Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy laws. The killer was the governor’s 26-year-old bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, who claimed he was acting in defense of Islam. Qadri was executed for murder in 2016 but later lionized as a martyr by some Pakistani Muslims, and his death spawned a crusade that has since gained millions of adherents.
A three-judge Supreme Court panel overturned a lower court’s conviction of Bibi, who spent eight years in prison while appealing charges of making “derogatory remarks” about the prophet Muhammad. The panel found that the evidence against her appeared fabricated and flimsy. If Asia had not been granted clemency, she could have been the first person hanged under the blasphemy laws, which carry a mandatory death penalty.
In the United States and elsewhere abroad, religious rights activists and others praised the court’s decision. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said her case “illustrates the extent to which blasphemy laws can be exploited to target minority communities.” Christians and members of Pakistan’s Ahmadi minority are often falsely accused of blasphemy.
The commission’s chairman, Tenzin Dorjee, called it “deeply troubling that Bibi’s case even reached this level,” at which she came close to being executed. In most such cases, the defendants end up languishing in prison, but many others have been lynched by mobs. The commission called on Khan’s government to ensure her safety and to release 40 other people imprisoned on blasphemy charges.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a longtime critic of alleged religious abuses in Pakistan, said in a tweet he was “relieved Asia Bibi has been freed and acquitted of a bogus blasphemy charge in Pakistan. This was the correct, humane, and only decision for the Court to make. Her and her family’s safety — and her lawyer’s — should be of the utmost importance now.”
There were unconfirmed reports that authorities were considering sending Bibi and her family out of the country. Bibi has not yet been released from custody, officials said.
On Tuesday night, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, leader of the national religious party known as the Movement in Service to the Prophet, warned that if the high court decided in favor of Bibi, the nation would be “brought to a standstill.” The party, which has used various names in the past, staged a mass protest last year that blocked the highway between Islamabad and Rawalpindi city for weeks. After the court ruled Wednesday, hundreds of religious protesters blocked the same route.
“We don’t accept this decision, which is given only to please the U.S. and other Western powers,” said Haris Ahmed, a young man taking part in the demonstration. “Our protest will continue until the Supreme Court reverses its decision and the blasphemer is sentenced to death. If the government believes it can stop us by force, they are living in a fool’s paradise.”
In Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, Rizvi staged a separate protest outside the provincial legislature after the ruling, urging people through a loudspeaker to join in. “All of you hearing my voice, shut your doors and come join this protest,” he said. “For us, the honor of our prophet is everything. We are ready to face police. We are not afraid of anything. It’s time to rise up for your religion.”
In its ruling, the court panel did not take issue with the blasphemy laws or with the imposition of the death penalty in proven cases but said it was bound to honor the presumption of innocence. Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar wrote that “the commission of blasphemy is abhorrent and immoral . . . but at the same time a false allegation regarding commission of such an offence is equally detestable.”
Constable reported from Kabul. Flynn reported from Washington.