By Ann Marie Foley - 01 November, 2018
A Christian woman charged with blasphemy in Pakistan has been acquitted and is free to leave prison.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the death sentence hanging over Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman from the Punjab who in 2010 became the first woman in Pakistan condemned to death for blasphemy.
Ms Bibi, a mother of four, has been in solitary confinement during her time in prison. She was reported to be in disbelief at the verdict announced on Wednesday, 31st October.
News of the acquittal was welcomed by Ms Bibi’s husband and daughter. Speaking within minutes of the announcement, Ms Bibi’s 18-year-old daughter, Eisham Ashiq, told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) through an interpreter: “I am so happy. I want to thank God. I can’t wait to hug my mother and then celebrate with my family. I am grateful to God for listening to our prayers.”
Ms Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, said: “We are very happy. This is wonderful news. We thank God very much that he’s heard our prayers – and the prayers of so many people who have longed for Asia Bibi’s release over all these years of suffering and anguish.”
The release has been hailed by humanitarian organisations as justice for all minorities. Fr Emmanuel Yousaf, National Director of Pakistan’s Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference (PCBC) said, “I am glad that justice has finally been served. In the current developing situation and protests by extremist groups, may Our Lord bless and protect Asia and her family and keep all our Christian brothers and sisters safe here in Pakistan.”
Fr Yousaf described the verdict as a victory for the whole nation. He said it would benefit all citizens of Pakistan, regardless of whether they were Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh or of other faiths, as they can also be convicted under the country’s blasphemy law. He said most Pakistanis would be happy with the verdict.
“Today is like the dawn of new hope for oppressed minorities,” said Neville Kyrke-Smith, National Director of ACN (UK). He praised the courage of the judges in acquitting Ms Bibi in the face of fierce opposition from Islamist protestors, and said: “It is important that justice is not just seen to be done but is done.”
Soon after the verdict was announced the BBC reported violent protests by those who support the blasphemy laws. The protests in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Multan and elsewhere involved clashes with police. The area around the Supreme Court, in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, was sealed off by police and paramilitary forces to keep protesters away from the court.
The Supreme Court’s decision overturns the 2010 sentence Ms Bibi received for insulting the Muslim Prophet Mohammed, a crime punishable by death according to Article 295C of Pakistan’s penal code – part of the so-called blasphemy laws.
The charge was brought against her following an argument with Muslim co-workers who said that, as a Christian, she had contaminated a water cup by drinking from it. She has been in prison since and has always protested her innocence.
On 8th October the case had its final hearing at Pakistan’s Supreme Court in the capital, Islamabad. At the time of the hearing, Asia’s daughter, Eisham, and husband, Ashiq, were in the UK as guests of Aid to the Church in Need, raising awareness of the case.