In 2009, Asia Bibi was accused of insulting the prophet Mohammed. She, as a Christian, had allowed a cup that she had drank from to touch the water bucket that was used for drinking by three Muslim women who had been working beside her… and after allowing her cup to touch that bucket, had refused to convert to Islam. The penalty for this offense, handed down by the Pakistani courts in 2010, was death by hanging.
On October 8th, the Pakistan Supreme Court decided on the appeal submitted by Bibi’s lawyer. Their decision was held from the media until the 31st, at which point the result was made public: she has had her conviction overturned and has been freed from prison, ending the protective solitary confinement of eight years.
Her cause had been championed by international groups and by prominent Pakistan politicians. Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minorities Minister who, as a Catholic, was the only Christian in the cabinet-level offices of Pakistani politics, was an outspoken advocate for her until he was killed by assassins in early 2011. Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, was a reform-oriented Muslim who was also an advocate for her release. He was assassinated by one of his security guards almost two months prior to the Bhatti murder.
These historical acts are important because the Justices on Pakistan’s Supreme Court have been threatened with death if they overturned the hanging sentence. Primary among those making the threats is an Islamic cleric who heads one of Pakistan’s political parties, Khadim Hussain Rizvi of the TLY (Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah). Extra security forces have been deployed to protect the courts in the event of attempted violence; considering the successful three-week siege in 2017 and the countrywide attention to this case, such an attempt is likely.
Memri.org cites the Urdu daily paper Roznama Jang as reporting that more than 200 towns across Pakistan have held rallies demanding Bibi’s death. Her execution for touching a cup has become a rallying cry for Barelvi Islam, which had previously been seen as a moderate branch of Sunni Islam.
Per the BBC:
The judges said the prosecution had “categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt”.
The case was based on flimsy evidence, they said, and proper procedures had not been followed. The alleged confession was delivered in front of a crowd “threatening to kill her”.
The ruling heavily referenced the Koran and Islamic history. It ended with a quote from the Hadith, the collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, which calls for non-Muslims to be treated kindly.
One of the Justices wrote an additional concurring opinion which was published in Pakistani newspaper The News. In it, he further explains:
The glaring and stark contradictions in the evidence produced by the prosecution in respect of every factual aspect of this case, noticed by me above, lead to an irresistible and unfortunate impression that all those concerned in the case with providing evidence and conducting investigation had taken upon themselves not to speak the truth or at least not to divulge the whole truth. It is equally disturbing to note that the courts below had also, conveniently or otherwise, failed to advert to such contradictions and some downright falsehood. All concerned would have certainly done better if they had paid heed to what Almighty Allah has ordained in the Holy Qur’an.
The public reasoning for the decision has not prevented riots and protests from breaking out across Pakistan in protest.
The family has stated that they expect to have to leave Pakistan if she were acquitted. Per the BBC, many countries have offered asylum, but have been moving slowly for fear of being seen as attempting to influence the decision.
A comment: This case is a perfect example of how slight changes in reporting can be used to inflame passions. In most pro-Islamic sites (at least the English versions of them), her offense is being described as using the same drinking vessel as the Islamic women. In other venues, where court records and interviews with the principals are used, the offense is described as having allowed her cup to touch the communal water bucket as the water was being poured into it. This seemingly minor difference is nevertheless significant for Muslims, and can be used to inflame or diminish passions about the purported offense.