After nine years in prison for blasphemy, the Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi is free to go after the Supreme Court today, 29 January, upheld her acquittal from the death penalty conviction for blasphemy.

The panel considering a review of last year’s verdict by the Supreme Court – which had acquitted her based on lack of compelling evidence – said the petitioner had not been able to highlight mistakes in the original ruling.

Pakistan’s new Chief Justice, Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, who led the panel of three judges, said that, had the case not been so sensitive, Bibi’s accusers should have been jailed for life because of perjury, reported Associated Press (AP).

“The image of Islam we are showing to the world gives me much grief and sorrow,” Khosa said, according to AP.

In its original ruling the Supreme Court bench had said the prosecution’s evidence was flimsy and inconsistent, even a “feast of falsehood”.

Asia Bibi followed proceedings on a television screen in a secret location in Islamabad, where she has been in hiding since her acquittal last year. A friend, who wished to remain anonymous, quoted her to AP as saying: “I am really grateful to everybody. Now after nine years it is confirmed that I am free and I will be going to hug my daughters“.

Divided Pakistan

Aasiya Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi, a Christian mother-of-five, received the death penalty in 2010 after she was allegedly found to have made derogatory comments about Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, during an argument with a Muslim woman.

Despite serious legal loopholes in her trial, several lower courts upheld her death penalty before her case reached the Supreme Court. Asia has always denied that she committed blasphemy.

Hard-line religious groups responded to last year’s acquittal with mass protests, blockades and threats that paralysed the country. Bibi’s lawyer, Saif-ul-Malook, went to the Netherlands shortly after the acquittal was announced, but returned to Pakistan for the review hearing.

Her case has divided Pakistan, and it’s not believed safe for her to live in the country. Her family has had to move numerous times during her incarceration in Multan jail, 570 km south of the capital Islamabad.

Several countries have offered her and her family asylum and she is expected to leave Pakistan; her two daughters have already left the country.

Blasphemy laws

In recent years, Pakistan, which is 96 per cent Muslim, has seen a surge in accusations of blasphemy, particularly against members of religious minorities.

For example, Pakistani Christians make up only around 2 per cent of the total population, but over a quarter (187) of the 702 blasphemy cases registered between 1990 and 2014 were against Christians.

Analysts say that accusations are frequently used to settle scores, or as a front for property grabs.

Generally acquittal by a lower court is unusual. Most leave blasphemy decisions to a higher court, as in Asia Bibi’s case.

However, a Pakistani lower court acquitted a Christian of blasphemy earlier this month.

On 15 January Pervaiz Masih was told he was free to go as the Kasur Session Court in the Punjab Province could not find enough evidence that he had insulted the Prophet Mohammad during a dispute with a Muslim businessman in September 2015.

In other cases, a mob takes the law into its own hands. In November 2014 a Christian couple – Shama Masih, who was pregnant, and husband Shahzad – were falsely accused of blasphemy and were thrown into a brick kiln by an angry mob of as many as 600 people.

They left behind three young children. Relatives took them into their care and now, ages 10, 8, and 6, they are trying to live ‘normal lives’, reports Pakistan’s daily Dawn.

The nightmares might have faded but they will be “forever haunted by the brutality of the day their parents were lynched”, said the paper.

In March last year, a Pakistani court acquitted 20 men suspected of involvement in the murder of the couple. The same court in November 2016 sentenced five men to death and jailed another eight men for two years.

Pakistan is 5th on the 2019 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.