A Catholic farmhand wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for blasphemy finally faces freedom after Pakistan’s supreme court removed the last legal barrier to her release.
Pakistan’s top court on Tuesday morning dismissed a petition against Asia Bibi’s acquittal last year, apparently leaving her free to leave the country and seek asylum abroad.
The decision by a three-man bench headed by Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa ends a 10-year-ordeal.
The mother-of-five was wrongly sentenced to hang in 2010 after she was accused of defaming the Prophet Mohammed during a quarrel with fellow villagers. Mrs Bibi spent eight years on death row in a case which deeply divided Pakistan, highlighting both its harsh blasphemy laws and mistreatment of minority Christians.
Two senior politicians who tried to help her and reform the laws were assassinated by religious hardliners.
Authorities prepared for more trouble ahead of the ruling, stepping up security around the court and readying paramilitary police to be deployed across the capital, Islamabad.
Saif ul Malook, Mrs Bibi’s lawyer, said the decision to reject the petition was a victory for justice in Pakistan.
He said his client would now "enjoy a relaxed rest of her life" abroad.
He praised the supreme court judges for finding in favour of his client despite death threats against them.
He said: "Pakistan’s supreme court has proved that they are a better court than the supreme court in America."
The supreme court demolished the case against Mrs Bibi in October, complaining of flimsy evidence, contradictory testimony by her accusers and irregularities in the prosecution.
But her acquittal sparked three days of protests by the hardline religious Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party. As roads were blocked, schools closed and commerce disrupted, the government reached a deal saying it would allow a petition to review the decision and keep Mrs Bibi in the country.
Following the protests police arrested radical clerics Khadim Hussain Rizvi and Mohammad Afzal Qadri, both leaders of the Tehreekk-e-Labbaik Party and they remain in custody.
The TLP said on Monday it would not accept the release of Mrs Bibi and told supporters to prepare for more protests, but the detention of its leaders may rein in the anger.
Mrs Bibi has remained in protective custody ahead of the hearing. She and her family say they are not safe in Pakistan, where religious groups continue to call for her execution. Residents of the village where she lived and was accused told The Telegraph last month that they have not forgiven her and believe she must still hang.
Her supporters disclosed in November that vigilantes were trying to find her relatives, knocking door-to-door in their neighbourhood.
Mrs Bibi’s two daughters have already fled to Canada with their guardian, and the country is a leading contender to give her asylum. Justin Trudeau, Canadian prime minister, said last year the country was in talks with Pakistan and said “Canada is a welcoming country”.
Wilson Chowdhry, Chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, said: "Today is a day of rejoicing, come what may in the aftermath of this decision.
"Asia Bibi has always been innocent and it is a blight on Pakistan that it took almost ten years to come to this decision to free her."
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