Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, who has spent eight years on death row, was acquitted on 31 October of blasphemy charges in a Supreme Court ruling. The court threw out all charges, saying ‘the prosecution has categorically failed to prove its case.’
The ruling sparked three days of protests that brought swathes of Pakistan to a standstill.
‘The news that the government has given in to protesters will be devastating to Asia Bibi and her family today,’ says Paul Robinson, the CEO of Release International, which supports persecuted Christians around the world.
‘On Thursday, the Supreme Court declared Asia to be innocent – a free woman. Today, she is free in name only, as the protesters calling for the death of this innocent woman have forced a climb-down from the government. Please pray for Asia, her family and for the Christian minority in Pakistan who are in serious danger today.’
Radical Islamist protestors called for Asia and the judges to be killed and for the army to mutiny and overthrow the government. Protesters with posters declaring ‘Hang Asia,’ blockaded roads, declaring they would bring the country to a standstill.
They also demanded that the Supreme Court overturn its verdict.
Initially, the government confronted the protestors. On Friday they capitulated to them.
According to reports, the government is now acting to prevent Asia Bibi leaving the country. The intention is to pave the way for further legal action against Asia – who has already been declared innocent by the highest court in the land.
Reports say the deal means every protester arrested in the demonstrations will now be released.
Asia’s lawyer, Saif-ul-Mulook has now left the country, telling reporters he could be killed in Pakistan. He told news agency AFP, ‘I need to stay alive as I still have to fight the legal battle for Asia Bibi.’
Describing the government’s response as ‘painful’, the lawyer added: ‘They cannot even implement an order of the country’s highest court. The struggle for justice must continue.’
The concession to protesters has been roundly criticised by the Pakistan newspaper, Dawn. In its editorial, Another Surrender, Dawn declared:
‘Yet another government has capitulated to violent religious extremists who neither believe in democracy, nor the Constitution.’
‘The law had already taken its course and an innocent woman was to be set free after a hellish, near-decade-long ordeal. It is the protesters against whom the law now needed to take its course… the woman expressedly declared innocent by the highest court in the land is to be kept in legal limbo…
Pakistan, it would seem, was a country with no real leadership while chaos and anarchy spread in the streets once again. The repercussions could quickly manifest themselves in the days ahead.’
The Pakistan Information Minister defended the compromise as ‘firefighting’ to avoid bloodshed. He said the government would ‘take all steps necessary’ to ensure Asia’s safety.
Given that the Supreme Court knew it would acquit Asia many weeks ago when it delayed its ruling, that pledge rings hollow to observers today. Action could and should have been taken to release and protect Asia and her family back then.
The climb-down was forced by the threat of violence by the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party (TLP). The TLP was founded in 2015 to defend the blasphemy laws and polled more than 2m votes in the July general election.
The TLP has reportedly accepted the deal and called off its protests. However, some radicals remain on the streets. Their central demand is that Asia should hang – even though the Supreme Court has declared her to be innocent.
According to her lawyer, Asia Bibi is likely to remain in prison or solitary confinement in Pakistan, free in name only.
Please keep praying for Asia, her lawyer and for the Christians of Pakistan.
Sources: Release International, Dawn, AFP