World News

Top Pakistan court upholds blasphemy acquittal of Christian woman

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who spent years on death row after being convicted of blasphemy, dismissing a petition filed by Islamists who have called for her execution.

The decision leaves Bibi, who has been staying at an undisclosed location under tight security, free to leave Pakistan and seek asylum abroad.

“On merit, this petition is dismissed,” Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa told the court.

In November, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country was in talks with Pakistan about helping Bibi. There was no immediate confirmation of her whereabouts or intentions following the verdict.

Canada’s foreign ministry stressed the case was a priority for the government.

“We are working with like-minded friends and allies on this issue. Canada is prepared to do everything we can to ensure the safety of Asia Bibi,” it said in a statement.

A spokesman for Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland declined to comment when asked whether Bibi might come to Canada.

Paramilitary soldiers stand guard outside the Supreme Court building in Islamabad, Pakistan January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Saiyna Bashir

The case shone a spotlight on Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws and the often difficult conditions facing its Christian minority who make up 1.6 percent of the largely Sunni Muslim country of over 200 million.

Bibi, a farm worker, was convicted in 2010 of making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbours working in the fields with her objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

Her conviction was overturned in October, prompting protests from religious hardliners calling for her death and demanding that the government prevent her from leaving Pakistan.

Under pressure from days of protests, the government agreed to stop Bibi leaving until the Supreme Court considered the petition.

Bibi has been in hiding since the Supreme Court freed her in October, after eight years on death row. She has always denied committing blasphemy.

Hours before the Supreme Court decision, Shafeeq Ameeni, acting head of the hardline Tehreek-e Labaik group, which led the protests last year, issued a new warning to the court not to rule in favour of the “blasphemer”.

Ameeni was not immediately available for comment. In remarks in court, Chief Justice Khosa was severely critical of the petitioners’ attempt to have the judgment reversed.

He said Bibi had been convicted on false evidence and pointed to discrepancies in testimony in the original case.

“You think we give the death sentence to someone on the basis of false evidence?” Khosa said. “Such lies were told that one statement doesn’t match with another.”

Rights group Amnesty International called for Bibi to be allowed to “reunite with her family and seek safety in a country of her choice”.

Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Robert Birsel, Robin Pomeroy and Grant McCool