Islamist radicals defy Imran, choke Pakistan over blasphemy acquittal

Aasia Bibi

Pakistani Christian mother-of-five, Aasia Bibi, who has been on death row since November 2010 after being convicted under the country's notorious "blasphemy law", has been saved from hanging by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court. Incidentally, the whereabouts of Asia Bibi and her family were unclear on Thursday.

Bibi was set to be released immediately according to the court, although there was no word if any security arrangements were being made for her protection. She has denied the charge. Two Muslim women refused to drink from a container used by a Christian.

Asia Bibi, who has four children, was the first woman to be sentenced to death under the laws.

The mere rumour of blasphemy can ignite mob violence and lynchings in Pakistan, and combating alleged blasphemy has become a central rallying cry for hardline Islamists. Later, the guard, Mumtaz Qadri, was hanged for the assassination - a move that infuriated supporters of firebrand Muslim cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who launched a violent drive to block any possible changes in the law.

Following the collapse of talks, the AP reported security was beefed up around the undisclosed detention facility where Bibi is being held.

However, over 2,000 Islamists continued blocking a key road linking the capital, Islamabad, with the garrison city of Rawalpindi on Friday, causing traffic jams.

Large protests were also held in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar, bringing parts of those cities to a virtual standstill. Protesters have engaged in "clashes" with police, and paramilitary has been dispatched to keep protesters from the Supreme Court building in Islamabad. "For the past eight years, Asia Bibi's life languished in limbo", said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director for Amnesty International.

Bibi's lawyer Saiful Malook told news agency AFP: 'The verdict has shown that the poor, the minorities and the lowest segments of society can get justice in this country despite its shortcomings.

Most schools and businesses have remained shut for a third consecutive day across Pakistan, as demonstrations against the acquittal of Christian woman accused of blasphemy continue in major cities. She was accused of making offensive comments about the Prophet Muhammad in the ensuing argument, in response to claims she should convert to Islam.

The three-judge panel upheld the blasphemy law itself, saying it was consistent with verses from Islam's holy book, the Qur'an.

The justices concluded that no strong evidence was presented to the court about Bibi's crime.

Noting that many Muslims are also victims of the blasphemy laws, Fr. Yousaf said that the verdict is beneficial for all the citizens of Pakistan, irrespective of whether they are Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh or of other faiths. Bibi's case was closely followed internationally amid concern for Pakistan's religious minorities, who have frequently come under attack by extremists in recent years. Nearly simultaneously, followers of a hardline Pakistani religious group rushed onto major highways across the country to paralyze traffic in protest of the decision.

Asia Bibi's daughter, Eisham Ashiq, 18, told Aid to the Church in Need: "I am so happy. I am grateful to God for listening to our prayers". On Thursday, prison officials said two inmates were arrested last month for planning to kill Bibi by strangling her.

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