Islamists Protest For Second Day After Christian Acquitted Of Blasphemy

Asia Bibi

Earlier this month I reported that Christian mother Asia Bibi was receiving her final death sentence appeal before a Pakistan Supreme Court panel on her conviction in 2010 of blasphemy.

Bibi was accused of making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

The outburst over the divisive blasphemy law prompted Prime Minister Imran Khan to go on national TV to guarantee their safety and criticise those who made verbal attacks on Pakistan's institutions, including his government.

Chief Justice Saqib Nisarm, who read out the ruling, said Asia Bibi could walk free from jail in Sheikupura, near Lahore, immediately if not wanted in connection with any other case.

On Wednesday, the top court overturned Ms Bibi's conviction.

But after her acquittal, Ms Bibi's release has been delayed by thousands of Islamist protesters who brought the nation to a standstill by burning rickshaws, cars and lorries in a mass demonstration against her release. Several Western countries offered her asylum.

Some radical groups led by imams have already decreed that they will oppose her release.

The secretary general of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, Farhatullah Babar, commended the Supreme Court judges for "refusing to be cowed" over their verdict.

Protesters took to the streets in Lahore, blocked roads and set fire to vehicles as they vented their anger against Pakistan's Supreme Court's decision to acquit Asia Bibi on charges of blasphemy for which she had been sentenced to death.

Passengers traveling by bus between Lahore and Islamabad were stuck on the highway as various parts of it were blocked by groups of protesters. We are grateful to the judges for giving us justice. "Either their security, their driver, or their cook should kill them".

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Schools across the most populous province of Punjab were closed. Federal minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was also killed after calling for her release.

Hafiz Saeed, an influential Islamist whom the US accuses of being the mastermind of attacks in Mumbai in 2008 that killed 166, has called for protests after Friday afternoon prayers.

In November, TLP staged a crippling blockade of Islamabad after small changes to a religious oath taken by election candidates, which it said were tantamount to blasphemy.

His death sparked further protests near his home, with police warning people to stay inside.

Bibi's husband hailed Wednesday's verdict.

The woman told her she should convert to Islam and "redeem herself".

Pakistan's blasphemy laws impose strict punishment on those who desecrate the Quran or who defame or insult Muhammad.

Authorities, including members of the main military security agency, held negotiations with the leader of the group late on Thursday but they came to no agreement, the TLP leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, said. The law does not clearly define blasphemy and evidence might not be reproduced in court for fear of committing a fresh offence.

While no one has been executed by the state under Pakistan's blasphemy laws, a report by Amnesty International calls those accused of blasphemy "as good as dead".

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