Asia Bibi: Pakistan releases Christian woman on death row

Asia Bibi: Pakistan releases Christian woman on death row

Asia Bibi

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Asia Bibi's case was extremely divided in religiously conservative Pakistan

A Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan won her appeal and was acquitted in a groundbreaking verdict.

Asia Bibi was convicted in 2010 after she was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad in a row with his neighbors.

She always kept her innocence, but spent most of the last eight years in solitary confinement.

Their case is deeply divided in Pakistan, where the blasphemy laws are strongly supported.

In the capital Islamabad there is a close fear of violence. Hardline religious clerics challenged their followers to take to the streets.

The verdict was read by Supreme Judge Saqib Nisar before the Supreme Court in Islambad.

"The appeal is allowed, she was acquitted, the verdict of the Supreme Court and the Court of Justice is set aside, and her sentence is set aside."

Critics say that Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws have often been used to avenge personal arguments, and that beliefs are based on thin evidence.

Asia Bibi's case became more significant when a regional governor, Salman Taseer, who asked for leniency, was assassinated by his own bodyguard on a public square in Islamabad.

His murderer was sentenced to death but remains a hero to many.

What were the allegations against her?

The process goes back to an argument Asia Bibi had with four children in June 2009 with a women's group.

They harvested fruit in Sheikhupura, near Lahore, when a dispute broke out over a bucket of water. The women said that because they had drunk from a cup, they could no longer use it because their faith had made it impure.

The woman claimed that in the following episode, Asia Bibi should convert to Islam and make three insulting remarks about the Prophet Muhammad.

She was later beaten up in her house while her prosecutors said she had blasphemy. She was arrested after a police investigation.

Asia Bibi admitted to exchanging "hot words" with her neighbors, but always maintained that she said nothing blasphemous and never confessed.

Her lawyers said the prosecutor's case was full of contradictions.

What support did she have?

Islam is Pakistan's national religion and underpins its legal system. Public support for the stringent blasphemy laws is strong.

Hardline politicians have often supported severe penalties, in part to bolster their support base.

One of the most prominent supporters of Asia Bibi was Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province. He had asked to pardon them and to overtake the blasphemy laws.

He was shot in early 2011 by his guard Mumtaz Qadri in broad daylight. Qadri was sentenced to death but remains a hero to many.

But internationally, Asia Bibi's conviction has been widely condemned as a violation of human rights.

What's happening now?

There are fears that it could lead to a violent reaction to her acquittal.

As in her previous trials and appeals, large crowds gathered in Islamabad on Wednesday to demand condemnation of her sentence.

She was offered asylum by several countries and should leave the country on acquittal.

Her daughter, Eisham Ashiq, had previously told the AFP news agency that if she were released, "I'll hug her and cry, meet her and thank God for releasing her."

But the family said they feared for their safety and would probably have to leave Pakistan.

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