Asia Bibi has, at long last, triumphed in her search for justice. When the Supreme Court of Pakistan last week threw out a challenge against its decision to acquit the Christian farm labourer, it marked the end of almost 10 years of legal proceedings, eight of which Asia spent on death row.
At the time of writing, Asia Bibi’s family have been incommunicado since the court’s decision on January 29 but, knowing them as I do through my work with Aid to the Church in Need, I am sure their sense of relief is all but overwhelming.
All the more so if reports are to be believed that Asia has already joined them in asylum abroad.
I spoke to Asia Bibi’s family back in October on the day when news came through of the original acquittal verdict. The Supreme Court’s decision overturned the death sentence Asia Bibi received for blaspheming against the Muslim Prophet Mohammad, a crime she has always vehemently denied. And I watched with distress as the family’s tears of joy turned to sadness when – within a few short days – the Supreme Court agreed to hear a petition appealing against her acquittal.
By then, Asia Bibi had been removed from a women’s prison in Multan before being taken into government-controlled “protective custody” in – or near – Islamabad, the capital.
This setback, which came following massive riots across Pakistan opposing the acquittal, coincided with the Pakistan government’s decision to initiate proceedings to place Asia Bibi on the Exit Control List, which threatened to ban her from leaving the country.
But all that is now in the past, and Pakistan’s foreign ministry has made clear that Asia Bibi is indeed a free woman.
Foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal said: “If [Asia Bibi] wants to live in Pakistan, she can live in Pakistan. If she wants to go abroad, she can go. This is her wish and there is no restriction on her.”
So far, it seems the Pakistan government has held firm against extremists in spite of protests, peaking on Friday last week when hundreds of Islamists went on the rampage, furious that the court had not upheld the original death sentence.
Asia Bibi has repeatedly stated her wish to be reunited with her family – in particular her two daughters – who are now reportedly in Canada.
Last Friday, three days after the Supreme Court upheld its acquittal, her lawyer, Saif ul-Malook, told the Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung that she had been “reunited with her family”. He later reportedly said he was unable to confirm this claim.
Speaking to me from Lahore, Fr Emmanuel Yousaf, national director of the Church-run National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) in Pakistan, told me that without doubt Asia Bibi was safer abroad than in Pakistan.
So the future at last looks bright for Asia Bibi. And it may also turn out to be bright for other victims of blasphemy.
Fr Yousaf, whose NCJP provides legal and para-legal aid for people accused of blasphemy with support from Aid to the Church in Need, said the Supreme Court’s decision may embolden other Pakistan courts dealing with similar cases.
With reports of 187 live cases of blasphemy involving Christians, Fr Yousaf stressed that, until now, courts had been subject to influence from militant extremists determined to punish anyone dishonouring Islam.
But he added: “The decision by the Supreme Court means that the lower courts should have the courage now to think twice about handing down the death sentence.”
John Pontifex is Head of Press & Information for Aid to the Church in Need (UK)