The Pakistani Supreme Court has dismissed a petition seeking a review of its decision to acquit Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who spent eight years on death row in a blasphemy case.
“On merit, this petition is dismissed,” said Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, ending Aasia Bibi’s final legal hurdle.
After her release from Multan’s women prison on November 7 last year, Aasia Bibi was flown to Islamabad onboard a special aircraft. She was then taken to an undisclosed place amid tight security. Authorities have remained tight-lipped about her movement and whereabouts for security reasons.
The allegations against Aasia Bibi were made in June 2009 when she was labouring in a field and a row broke out with some Muslim women she was working with.
She was asked to fetch water, but the Muslim women objected, saying that as a non-Muslim she was unfit to touch the water bowl. A few days later the women went to a local cleric and put forward the blasphemy allegations.
Speaking on the incident that sparked the allegations, the top judge said: “You are saying that Aasia said this [alleged blasphemous words] while addressing 25 people. Was she addressing a jalsa [rally]?”
“In front of the investigation officer, the women said that no dispute had occurred between them,” Chief Justice noted. “This case did not have as many honest witnesses as it should have had.
“The investigation officer says that the female witnesses changed their statements. The testimonies of the investigation officer and the witnesses are different.”
The hearing was held under tight security, including the deployment of paramilitary troops in Islamabad.
On Oct 31 last year, a three-judges set aside the conviction and death sentence against Aasia Bibi, who had been accused of committing blasphemy during an argument with a Muslim women in Sheikhupura in June 2009.
The Supreme Court’s quashing of her sentence last October led to violent protests by religious groups who support strong blasphemy laws, while more liberal sections of society urged her release.
Meanwhile, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which had led three-day-long mass protests against Bibi’s acquittal in November, on Monday night rejected the judgement and threatened a protest movement.
Most of the top TLP leadership, including its chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi, is presently imprisoned in the wake of a massive crackdown launched by law enforcement agencies against the group.
The ruling clears the way for her to leave Pakistan, though it is not clear when that will happen and where she will go. She has been offered asylum by a number of countries, and some unconfirmed reports say several members of her family may already be abroad.
Islam is Pakistan’s national religion and underpins its legal system. Public support for the strict blasphemy laws is strong.
The vast majority of those convicted in blasphemy cases are Muslims or members of the Ahmadi community who identify themselves as Muslims but are regarded as heretical by orthodox Islam.
Since the 1990s scores of Christians have also been convicted. They make up just 1.6% of the population.
Since 1990, at least 65 people have reportedly been killed in Pakistan over claims of blasphemy.