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Bibi victory draws praise, caution from advocates

LAHORE, Pakistan (BP) — The acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother who escaped death from a disputed blasphemy conviction in Pakistan, has stirred optimism as a legal victory and caution over her safety.

The Pakistan Supreme Court upheld Bibi’s acquittal Jan. 29. The three-judge panel ruled against Islamic extremists who challenged the court’s October decision to free Bibi.

“The verdict is a way forward, and it is positive,” NPR quoted Bibi’s attorney Saiful Malook as saying. “The judges raised pertinent legal questions, focusing on law and evidence, expressing displeasure over the perjury that was committed by the complainant against Asia and other witnesses.”

Bibi, who had lived in hiding in Islamabad since November, planned to travel to Canada to join family members already in Pakistan, a friend who requested anonymity told the Associated Press. She was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and would have been the first woman executed under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

“I am really grateful to everybody,” the friend quoted Bibi as saying, the AP reported. “Now after nine years it is confirmed that I am free and I will be going to hug my daughters.”

As Muslim extremists continue to threaten Bibi’s life, her attorney and others are calling for the prosecution of those who falsely accused the 53-year-old mother of five in 2009. Other advocates urge protection of the 3.9 million Christians who live as minorities in Pakistan and for the protection of the Supreme Court justices who upheld Bibi’s freedom.

In advance of the verdict, hundreds to perhaps thousands of Muslim extremists who threatened Bibi and her supporters were jailed, according to varying reports, and remain in custody. Few protested after the latest ruling, according to reports.

“The Supreme Court judges have given very clear observations on punishment for perjury,” Malook told Morning Star News. “Although there’s already a law against recording concocted testimonies, it’s important that the state implement it in letter and spirit to discourage people from leveling false allegations against others.”

Joseph Francis, a Christian politician and religious liberty advocate in Pakistan, voiced similar sentiment.

“This is a very good decision, but I think those who falsely implicated Bibi, wasting precious years of her life, should be prosecuted and sent to jail,” Francis, leader of the Pakistan Christian National Party, told AP. “Such a sentence will prevent others from falsely implicating innocent people in blasphemy cases.”

Bibi’s accusers should be jailed for life, were it not for the sensitivity of the case, Pakistan Supreme Court Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa told AP. Two government leaders who advocated for Bibi’s release during her ordeal, federal minister for minority affairs Shabbaz Bhatti and Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, were murdered in 2011 for supporting her.

“The image of Islam we are showing to the world gives me much grief and sorrow,” AP quoted Khosa as saying. More than 50 people accused of blasphemy have been killed by angry mobs and others in Pakistan, according to official counts.

Religious liberty advocate Amnesty International called for the court to be protected and urged the repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

“This shameful delay in enforcing Asia Bibi’s rights only reinforces the need for the Pakistani government to repeal the blasphemy laws as soon as possible,” Amnesty’s South Asia representative Rimmel Mohydin said, “as well as other laws that discriminate against religious minorities and put their lives in danger.”

Pakistan has “a duty to protect against threats of violence to harm religious minorities or the lives of judges or other government officials,” Mohydin said in a Jan. 29 press statement.

While the verdict is good news, said International Christian Concern (ICC), Christians in Pakistan now suffer a heightened threat.

“Our prayers now are with Asia and her family as they are in extreme danger until they are safely out of Pakistan,” ICC Regional Manager William Stark said in a press statement. “We are also very concerned for the safety of Pakistan’s Christian community at large. Asia’s case remains highly sensitive and the ignition point for many acts of religious hatred.”

Open Doors, which ranks Pakistan as the fifth most dangerous nation in the world for Christians, praised the verdict as a powerful message and upheld Bibi as a respected citizen among Christians.

“Bibi is a much loved and prayed for woman,” Open Doors quoted a partner in Pakistan as saying. “What happens to her impacts the whole Christian community.”

Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 on charges of insulting the prophet Mohammad while working in a field as a day laborer in 2009. When Bibi offered a coworker a cup of water, the woman said Bibi’s Christianity made the water ceremonially unclean. This set off a chain of false accusations related to Bibi’s beliefs and backed by Muslim clerics. Bibi refused to convert to Islam.

Since 1986 when Pakistan updated its blasphemy laws, at least 150 Christians, 564 Muslims, 459 Ahmadis and 21 Hindus have been jailed on blasphemy charges, according to Open Doors.

More than 40 people convicted of blasphemy are currently on death row or serving life sentences in Pakistan, according to the American Center for Law and Justice, which had advocated for Bibi’s release. Hundreds are serving or have served prison terms ranging from three years to 10 years.