Hardliners wreak havoc after acquittal of Pakistan's Asia Bibi on blasphemy charges; Imran Khan condemns them

(Photo: REUTERS / Athar Hussain)Employees of Pakistan's biggest television station Geo TV attend a protest against the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority after the station's license was suspended, in Karachi May 22, 2014. Pakistan's Geo TV said it was ramping up security on Tuesday after it became the object of dozens of blasphemy accusations for playing a song during an interview with an actress.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan has attacked hardliners in his country and appealed for calm after the acquittal of Asia Bibi a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy.

In a televised broadcast Oct. 31, Khan said extremists were "inciting [people] for their own political gain", claiming they are "doing no service to Islam," the BBC reported.

He was speaking after the landmark case triggered violent protests by hardliners who support strong blasphemy laws.

Pakistan's Chief Justice Saqib Nisar read out the ruling, saying Asia Bibi could walk free from jail in Sheikupura, near Lahore, immediately if not wanted in connection with any other case.

She was not in court to hear the decision but reacted to the verdict from prison with apparent disbelief.

"I can't believe what I am hearing, will I go out now? Will they let me out, really?" AFP news agency quoted her as saying by phone.

Many Christians around the world rejoiced at the acquittal.

World Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit "received with joy" the news of the verdict of Bibi's case.

The Pakistani Christian woman, a Roman Catholic, was convicted and sentenced to death under Pakistan's blasphemy laws in 2010.

"We celebrate her acquittal and release together with her, her family and community," said Tveit.

"The WCC has repeatedly called for justice for Asia Bibi, convicted 8 years ago on charges resulting from a village argument in which she was accused by her neighbors of blasphemy."

Tveit further noted that, while this verdict finally corrects the error of her conviction, it cannot undo the injustice of her 8-year-long imprisonment on death row, often in solitary confinement, an ordeal which she has endured with faith and courage.


"Nor does it eliminate the many challenges posed by Pakistan's blasphemy laws to all of Pakistan's marginalized religious minorities," he said.

"WCC therefore appeals once again to the Government of Pakistan to review its blasphemy laws, to curb their abuse, and to eliminate discriminatory bias against religious minorities."

Tveit said, "We call for equal citizenship and rights for all Pakistanis regardless of religious affiliation, which is their constitutional right. And we pray for peace and harmony to prevail between all Pakistan's communities."

Open Doors, an organization that advocates for persecuted Christians around the world, rejoiced at the new of Bibi's release.

A spokesman for the organization said, "We are relieved to hear that the Pakistani Supreme Court has dropped the charges against Asia Bibi -- charges that were based simply on her Christian identity and false accusations against her. This decision gives us hope that Pakistan will take additional steps to increase freedom of religion and human rights in the country."

Bibi's lawyer told the BBC she would need to move abroad for her safety.

A 47-year-old laborer, Bibi was convicted in 2010 of insulting the Prophet Muhammad during a row with neighbors.

During her imprisonment she maintained her innocence but spent most of the past eight years in solitary confinement.

The Oct. 31 verdict by the Supreme Court sparked demonstrations in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Multan. Clashes with police have been reported.

A leader of the hard-line Islamist Tehreek-i-Labaik party, Muhammad Afzal Qadri, said all three Supreme Court judges "deserve to be killed."

Police sealed off the Red Zone in the capital, Islamabad, where the Supreme Court is located.

Khan said: "Which government can function like this, blackmailed by protests?

"And who suffers due to this? Our Pakistanis. The common people, the poor. You block the roads, you rob people's livelihood...

"This is not the service of Islam, this is enmity with the country. Only anti-State elements talk like this, that kill the judges, start a revolt in army... They are only trying to beef up their vote bank."

in 2011, senior politician Salman Taseer was shot dead by his own bodyguard for voicing support for Asia Bibi and condemning the country's stringent blasphemy laws, CNN reported.

His killer, Mumtaz Qadri, immediately surrendered to police and was later executed, becoming a martyr for many hardline Islamists.

Islam is Pakistan's national religion and underpins its legal system. More than 90 percent of the Pakistan's 2-4 million population are Muslims, most of them, Sunnis, while Christians are a tiny minority.

Public support for the strict blasphemy laws is strong and hardline politicians have often backed severe punishments, partly as a way of shoring up their support base.

But human rights groups have long asserted that the laws have often been used to get revenge after personal disputes, and that convictions are based on thin evidence.

Most those convicted are Muslims or members of the Ahmadi community, but since the 1990s, scores of Christians have been convicted.

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