Imran Khan calls for calm after protests over Asia Bibi blasphemy acquittal

Imran Khan calls for calm after protests over Asia Bibi blasphemy acquittal

After spending nearly a decade fighting for her life against charges of blasphemy, Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi is finally free thanks to the country's Supreme Court overturning her conviction. "We are not going to step back", radical Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) - which had threatened the judges with dire consequences if Asia Bibi was acquitted - said in a statement. "They are committing vandalism", he said.

"We will protect people's properties and lives, we will not allow any sabotage, we will not allow any traffic to be stopped". Today's verdict will not make many in Pakistan happy.

Protests with up to 300 participants, a lot of them supporters of the TLP, went ahead in many other places in Lahore. Our protest will continue until and unless the Supreme Court reverses its decision and the blasphemer is sentenced to death.

"Religious clerics ... who addressed the rallies in these towns vowed to continue their protests until the Supreme Court delivers its judgment and to oppose any attempt to amend Pakistan's blasphemy laws", Ahmad wrote.

"Her conviction is set aside and she is to be relieved forthwith if not required in other charges", the judgement said.

"We urge the government of Pakistan to provide necessary security to Asia and give her a safe passage to a place of peace and security".

The TLP called for the ouster of Khan's government and said that Nasir, the chief justice, and "all those who ordered the release of Asia deserve death".

In Pakistan, where the mere allegation of blasphemy can lead to lynchings and murders before a court has even heard the evidence, Bibi's case ignited acute tension between the increasingly aggressive far-right anti-blasphemy movement and groups supporting leniency.

Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging in November 2010 in the lower court in Nanka district, a verdict confirmed four years later by the Lahore High Court.

"I can't believe what I am hearing, will I go out now?" Bibi told AFP by phone from prison after the ruling.

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"I am very happy". The case quickly garnered worldwide attention, with groups such as the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) fighting on her behalf.

Pope Benedict XVI called for her release in 2010, while in 2015 her daughter met his successor and the current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis.

Bibi was convicted under Pakistan's blasphemy law after a June 2009 altercation with fellow farm workers who refused to drink water she had touched, contending it was "unclean" because she was Christian.

"While this is a day of victory and celebration for Asia Bibi, her family, and all those who have relentlessly prayed for her, Asia and Christians in Pakistan need continued prayers".

"I don't see any derogatory remarks vis-a-vis the holy Koran as per the FIR", added Chief Justice Nisar, referring to the initial complaint filed in the case.

Bibi maintained her innocence but spent most of the past eight years in solitary confinement.

Approximately 40 people are believed to be on death row or serving a life sentence in Pakistan for blasphemy, according to a 2018 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

In 2011, two government officials - a Pakistani governor and a minister of minorities - were assassinated for having spoken out in support of Bibi. The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, has been celebrated as a martyr by hard-liners since he was hanged for the killing, with millions visiting a shrine set up for him near Islamabad.

Pakistani media reported the protest leaders also took pledges from activists and the public to offer any sacrifice of life and wealth.

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