Pakistan’s Supreme Court has finally put an end to the horrific ordeal of 47-year-old Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman from a village in Punjab province who has spent the past eight years of her life on death row.
Bibi was convicted under Pakistan’s blasphemy law after a June 2009 altercation with fellow farm workers who refused to drink water she had touched, contending it was “unclean” because she was Christian. After years of controversy about her case, her conviction was finally quashed on October 31. Groups supporting the blasphemy law immediately took to the streets to protest the decision, and have threatened judges of the supreme court, government officials, and military leadership with violent reprisals.
Bibi was the first woman in Pakistan's history to be sentenced to death for blasphemy, though others have been convicted and given lesser sentences.
At least 17 people remain on death row after being convicted under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, and hundreds more await trial. Since 1990, dozens of people accused of blasphemy have been murdered.
Often the most vulnerable members of religious minorities have become victims. In August 2009, a Christian hamlet was set on fire in Gojra, Punjab. In September 2017, Nadeem James, a 35-year-old Christian, was sentenced to death for forwarding a poem to a friend that was deemed insulting to Islam. James denied sending the message. In April 2014, a Christian couple was sentenced to death for sending a blasphemous text message to a local cleric, a charge they denied.
Those who condemned Aasia Bibi’s conviction or criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy law have also been killed. In January 2011, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was killed by his own security guard. And in March 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minorities affairs, was assassinated.
Aasia Bibi’s acquittal is a moment for reflection. There is a real fear that violent protests could erupt, and there have already been threats against the judges that ruled in Bibi’s case. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s new government should use this opportunity to amend and ultimately repeal a blasphemy law that has, too often, been used against Pakistan’s most marginalized and most vulnerable.