Pakistan's Supreme Court on Wednesday freed a Christian woman from a death sentence for blasphemy against Islam and overturned her conviction, sparking angry protests and death threats from an ultra-religious party and cheers from human rights advocates.
Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mian Saqib Nisar, heading the three-member bench comprising Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel, read the 56-page verdict and announced the Lahore High Court (LHC) verdict was set aside and directed authorities to release Aasia Bibi from prison.
Justice Nisar while reading out the verdict said, "The appeal is allowed".
She has been offered asylum by several countries and was expected to leave the country if acquitted. She had moved the Supreme Court against her conviction.
The judgement has sparked a backlash from hardline Islamists who have called for the death of the chief justice of the Supreme Court and two other judges behind the ruling.
Bibi's plight drew the attention of global rights groups and quickly evolved into the most high-profile case in the country, with Pope Benedict XVI calling for her release in 2010. "We knew that she is innocent", said Ashiq Masih.
Blasphemy is an incendiary charge in deeply conservative Muslim Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam and its Prophet Mohammed can provoke a violent and bloody death at the hands of vigilantes.More news: Family of Leicester club owner join mourners after helicopter crash
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"For the past eight years, Asia Bibi's life languished in limbo", said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director for Amnesty International. The two Muslim women who pressed charges against Bibi denied they quarreled with her, saying her outbursts against Islam were unprovoked.
She was sentenced to death in a case that provoked uproar at home and overseas.
The protests took part mainly in the city of Lahore, but demonstrations took place in other areas too, including Karachi and Rawalpindi.
Campaigners argue Pakistan's blasphemy laws are often based on thin evidence and used to get revenge for personal disputes. In 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province was shot and killed by one of his elite guards for defending Bibi and criticizing misuse of the blasphemy law.
The state hung his assassin Mumtaz Qadri in 2016 in a Supreme Court decision that was hailed by progressives, but brought hardliners into the streets supporting Qadri and demanding Bibi's death.
Bibi's case has been extremely divisive in Pakistan. Asia was arrested in June 2009 and sentenced to death in 2010 for blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad's name. It ended with a quote from the Hadith, the collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, which calls for non-Muslims to be treated kindly. Her whereabouts has been kept secret for security reasons.