ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld its decision to acquit a Christian woman on charges of blasphemy that kept her on death row for eight years, clearing the way for her to leave the country.
Asia Bibi, 47, was released from prison in November and taken to a secure, undisclosed location for her safety, according to authorities. She may now leave Pakistan and is expected to join her daughters in Canada, where they were granted political asylum.
The court originally acquitted her on Oct. 31, prompting three days of paralyzing street demonstrations and death threats against the judges responsible for the decision by radical groups calling for her execution. Bibi’s lawyer fled the country at the time but later returned for the final hearing after it was appealed.
Qari Muhammad Salaam, the Muslim prayer leader from Bibi’s village, filed the petition to review the decision with his lawyer, asking the three-judge panel to be expanded to include religious scholars.
Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa stood by the court’s original verdict, saying nothing in the petition cast doubt on the validity of the original verdict, which slammed the conflicting testimony against Bibi.
“You think we give the death sentence to someone on the basis of false evidence?” he said, according to media reports. “Such lies were told that one statement doesn’t match with another.”
“The image of Islam we are showing to the world gives me much grief and sorrow,” he added. “The beauty of a Muslim community is that non-Muslims are taken care of.”
Bibi’s case strikes at the heart of one of the top issues in Pakistan: Its strict blasphemy laws that have often been wielded against minorities, including an estimated 3 million Christians, in this Sunni-Muslim-majority nation of over 200 million.
Just the accusation of blasphemy is often enough to motivate lynch mobs. No one charged with blasphemy has yet been formally executed under the law, however.
Bibi, a farmworker and mother of five, was accused by co-workers of insulting the prophet Muhammad in a dispute over sharing water in a sweltering hot field. Bibi denied the charge.
At one point, a provincial governor defended Bibi and questioned her treatment under the law. He was assassinated by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. After Qadri was executed for the murder in 2016, he was lionized as a martyr by the anti-blasphemy movement, and his shrine has become a pilgrimage site.
The main group pushing for Bibi’s execution, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan Party, issued a video statement rejecting the court decision and calling on its supporters to protest and be prepared for arrest.
“I want to tell the rulers that you have caused great pain and agony to the millions of followers of the prophet,” said acting party leader Allama Shafiq Ameeni. “I urge all Pakistanis and especially order the workers of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan to come out of their homes in protest against this cruel and unjust decision.”
Security was heavy in Islamabad on Tuesday at the Supreme Court and around the city with police and paramilitary troops stationed at sensitive points.
Police have also been on high alert across Punjab province, the focus of last year’s riots over Bibi’s acquittal.
The Washington Post’s Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this report.