On 8th October 2018, the Supreme Court of Pakistan decided the case of Asia Bibi, who was accused of Blasphemy and had been given a death sentence. The highest court in the country reserved the ruling at the time, and then on 31st October 2018, the Supreme Court released the verdict in Asia Noreen’s favour; acquitting her of all charges and over turning the death sentence. She had been imprisoned for 9 years and on death row for 8.
Later, some of the workers complained to a cleric that Noreen insulted the Prophet. What they accused her of saying, which would be stated in the later court verdict, differs from her version. A mob came to her house, beating her and members of her family before she was rescued by the police. The police initiated an investigation about her remarks, resulting in her arrest under Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code. She subsequently was imprisoned for over a year before being formally charged. In November 2010, a Sheikhupura judge sentenced her to death. This ruling was subsequently challenged in higher courts before it reached the Supreme Court.
Noreen’s death sentence drew international outrage and strong condemnation from human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch who saw the blasphemy laws as a form of religious persecution and called for them to be abolished. Pope Benedict XVI publicly called for clemency for Noreen. In his statement, he described his “spiritual closeness” with Noreen and urged that the “human dignity and fundamental rights of everyone in similar situations” be respected.
A French Journalist, Anne-Isabelle Tollet, also worked with Asia on writing her Memoirs titled Blasphemy: A Memoir: Sentenced to Death over a Cup of Water. Due to prison restrictions she could not directly meet Asia Bibi but she interviewed her family and Asia’s husband helped convey Tollet’s questions to Asia.
Khadim Rizvi released a video 9 hours prior to the ruling which called all his followers to be ready for action in case the court rules in favour of Asia Bibi. He termed the condition a “high-alert” and instructed the people to be ready for any “sacrifice”.
Similarly a local cleric Pir Afzal Qadri, has issued a fatwa calling for the murder of any judge who rules in favour of Asia Bibi. In 1997 a similar fatwa by Qadri in a blasphemy case led to the murder of Lahore High court judge, Justice Arif Iqbal.
Conversely, the saner side of Pakistan is rejoicing over the acquittal; people are terming it as a victory of justice and step towards more tolerant and less prejudiced Pakistan.
The judiciary ought to be commended for this ruling, which came amidst pressure from religious groups and threats of violence and protests. The ruling was given by a 3 member bench, headed by the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Saqib Nisar.
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