ISLAMABAD - Pakistan’s top court has upheld the acquittal of a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, finally ending her decade-old legal ordeal.
Asia Bibi was freed from prison last October when the Supreme Court overturned her conviction and death sentence, saying charges against her were groundless and listed inconsistencies in witness testimonies.
But the woman has since been kept at an undisclosed location under state protection because of death threats from religious fanatics.
Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, who was heading the three-judge bench, said before throwing out the review petition Tuesday that the case did not merit a hearing because the complaint’s lawyer was unable to point out any flaws in the verdict freeing Bibi.
Tuesday’s court ruling has paved the way for Bibi to leave Pakistan, most likely for Canada, where her children have already been granted asylum.
Her attorney, Saiful Malook, said the rejection of the review petition is “a victory of justice." "The court vindicated our view that Bibi was innocent and justice has finally been done,” he added.
The 54-year-old mother of five was arrested in 2009 for allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad in a dispute with Muslim female farm co-workers in her native village in Punjab province.
Bibi was convicted a year later of blasphemy and sentenced to death. She has maintained her innocence from the outset.
Insulting Islam or its prophet is punishable by death in under Pakistani laws. The issue is extremely sensitive in the predominantly Muslim nation where even mere rumors have led to the mob lynching of suspected blasphemers.
The law is often misused to settle personal feuds, say human rights groups.
The October 31 acquittal of Bibi had triggered days of nationwide protests by Islamists, demanding the Supreme Court reverse its ruling. The protesters dispersed only after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government assured them the woman would not leave Pakistan until her case was reviewed.
Khan, however, had stated at the time that his government would stand by the court ruling if it upheld Bibi’s acquittal. Authorities have since arrested hundreds of activists and leaders of the radical Tehreek-i-Labaik party, the organizer of the protest rallies.
The party warned on Monday it would stage fresh protests if the Supreme Court verdict went in Bibi’s favor. But the situation remained calm hours after the verdict was announced.
Bibi's case had been in the spotlight from the beginning and attacked widespread outrage and support from within and outside Pakistan. Her acquittal is a landmark development in Pakistan where judges, lawyers and witnesses involved in blasphemy-related cases remain under pressure and receive death threats from extremists.
The intimidation forces courts to delay such cases for years and suspects, even if wrongly accused, remain in custody in the meantime. A provincial governor and a federal minister are among high-profile figures who were assassinated in Pakistan merely for calling for reforms in blasphemy laws to prevent their misuse.