ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s major cities witnessed massive protests on Wednesday following the Supreme Court’s judgment to overturn the death sentence for a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who had been imprisoned for eight years on blasphemy charges.
The protesters took to the streets on the call of the far-right party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), in cities including Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi to protest against the apex court’s verdict.
Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a hard-line cleric and chief of the TLP party, urged thousands of followers to block the main arteries of the cities to register a “peaceful protest.” Traffic was also disrupted in the major cities due to the protests.
The provincial governments of Punjab and Sindh provinces have banned the gathering of more than four persons in their territories to deal with any law and order issues.
The Sindh government has also established a central control room to “monitor the prevailing law and order situation” and “maintain liaison and communication with all the controls rooms of respective police, law enforcement agencies, commissioners and deputy commissioners.”
Defying the ban, the protesters gathered in the major cities and chanted slogans against the government. However, no clashes of protesters with the security forces or any other incident was reported.
Heavy contingents of police and Rangers — a paramilitary force — were also deployed in Islamabad and other major cities to protect important installations and deal with any incident.
TLP General-Secretary Allama Waheed Noor told Arab News that protesters have taken to the streets to paralyze life in all major cities until the Supreme Court reverses its verdict.
Speaking in Parliament, Pakistan Peoples Party’s chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari urged all national institutions to stand with the Supreme Court of Pakistan in its decision to acquit Asia Bibi.
“The Supreme Court is our national institution. All other institutions, including the National Assembly, should stand with the Supreme Court,” he said. “We cannot run the country from the streets. We can only run this country according to the constitution and law.”
Speaking on the floor of the National Assembly shortly after the announcement of the verdict, Maulana Asad Mehmood said: “The people of Pakistan have rejected the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Asia Bibi case.”
The high court announced the verdict on a 2014 appeal filed by Bibi challenging the LHC’s decision. Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, while reading out the judgment, ordered Bibi’s immediate release if she was not wanted in any other case.
“The judgment of the high court and that of the trial court is reversed. Her conviction is set aside and she is to be relieved forthwith if not required on other charges,” the ruling said.
The 56-page verdict, authored by Nisar, said that the prosecution had categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.
“It is a well-settled principle of law that one who makes an assertion has to prove it. Thus, the onus rests on the prosecution to prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt throughout the trial,” the judgment said.
A special three-member bench — comprising Nisar, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel — reserved its verdict on Oct. 8 after hearing the final appeal against Bibi’s execution.
The appeal had challenged the Lahore High Court’s October 2014 verdict, which upheld a trial court’s decision in November 2010 sentencing Bibi to death for committing blasphemy.
Bibi was accused of making “defamatory and sarcastic” comments about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in 2009 during an argument with three Muslim women while working in a field in Sheikhupura.
Bibi’s case outraged Christians worldwide and has been a source of division within Pakistan. The incident gained international spotlight after the-then Punjab governor Salman Taseer intervened and called for an amendment in blasphemy laws.
The governor was later killed in broad daylight in Islamabad by one of his own bodyguards. His assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was executed in 2016 after the apex court found him guilty of murder and his appeal for clemency was rejected by the president.
Pakistan’s blasphemy law (295-C) carries the mandatory death penalty and activists claim that it is often used to target non-Muslim minorities in the country.