Islamabad: The Pakistani lawyer who saved a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy from the gallows left the country on Saturday, saying his life was under threat.
Saif ul Mulook's latest victory saw the freeing of Asia Bibi, who spent nearly a decade on death row, after the Supreme Court overturned her sentence on Wednesday.
The decision sparked protests across the country, with major roads blocked in Lahore and Islamabad as religious hardliners called for the death of the judges and those who helped acquit Bibi.
"In the current scenario, it's not possible for me to live in Pakistan," the 62-year-old told AFP before boarding a plane to Europe early Saturday morning.
"I need to stay alive as I still have to fight the legal battle for Asia Bibi," he said.
Blasphemy is a massively inflammatory charge in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam can provoke death at the hands of vigilantes.
On Friday night, the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party (TLP), which has largely led the demonstrations, announced an end to mass protests after reaching a deal with the government.
A five-point agreement seen by AFP, signed by both parties, said the government would not object to an appeal of the verdict, filed earlier in the Supreme Court.
When asked about the Islamist outcry, Mulook said it was "unfortunate but not unexpected".
"What's painful is the response of the government. They cannot even implement an order of the country's highest court," he said, adding that "the struggle for justice must continue".
According to the agreement, which came after a failed first round of talks, legal proceedings will follow to impose a travel ban on Bibi and stop her leaving the country.
"Her life would be more or less the same, either inside a prison or in solitary confinement for security fears" until a decision on the appeal, said Mulook.
The deal was criticised by local media and the country's oldest newspaper Dawn called it "another surrender" in an editorial on Saturday.
"Yet another government has capitulated to violent religious extremists who neither believe in democracy, nor the constitution," it read.
The TLP, founded in 2015, blockaded the capital Islamabad for several weeks last year calling for stricter enforcement of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws.
That protest forced the resignation of the federal law minister and paved the way for the group to poll more than 2.23 million votes in the July 25 general election, in what analysts called a "surprisingly" rapid rise.
Islamabad: A Pakistani Islamist group said on Friday it will call off protests over the acquittal of the Christian woman Asia Bibi who was facing hanging on blasphemy charges, striking a deal with the government to end three days of protests.
"We have reached on an agreement with the government" Ejaz Ashrafi, spokesman for the ultra-Islamist Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) group, told Reuters. "An announcement will be made shortly by our leadership."
On Wednesday, Pakistan's Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Asia Bibi, a mother of five, and ordered her freed. She had been living on death row since 2010 after being convicted under Pakistan's tough blasphemy laws.
Who is Asia Bibi?
Asia Bibi, whose full name is Aasia Noreen, was the second Christian sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws after Ayub Masih who was released in 2002.
Asia Bibi's daughters' plea for mother's case - 2010
This was a high-profile case from the onset, widely covered by international media, as two officials, former Punjab governor Salman Taseer and former Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti (a Christian) who spoke in favour of Bibi were both assassinated. Taseer’s killer Mumtaz Qadri was tried and executed for murder in 2016.
What is the law she was convicted under?
Asia Bibi, 47, was convicted for blasphemy under section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code for allegedly defaming Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). The offence carries mandatory death penalty under the law.
Asia Bibi (L) in 2017
What was Asia Bibi accused of and when was she convicted?
Asia Bibi was alleged for “defamatory and sarcastic” statements about the Prophet (PBUH) on June 14, 2009, during an argument with Muslim women. The prosecution presented seven witnesses to support the blasphemy allegations. Two eyewitnesses, Mafia and Asma, claimed they heard Aasia make the allegedly blasphemous remarks, and later “admit” to making the statements during a “public gathering”. Another witness, a local cleric, Qari Mohammad Salaam, later registered criminal complaint with the police. She was arrested after a police investigation.
When did the court convict her?
A trial court convicted Asia Bibi for blasphemy in November 2010 and sentenced her to death. In 2015, Supreme Court suspended death sentence for appeal processes.
What was Asia Bibi’s defence?
Asia Bibi stated she had a “quarrel” with Mafia and Asma on June 14, 2009, over their refusal to drink water brought by Asia Bibi because she was Christian. She claimed “some hot words were exchanged” during the argument, after which both women, alongside Qari Mohammad Salaam and his wife fabricated the blasphemy case against her. Asia Bibi also stated that she had “great respect and honour for the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and the Holy Quran” and never made the alleged blasphemous remarks.
What did the Court 2018 verdict say?
A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel overturned the death sentence of Bibi.
Members of Pakistan’s Christian community distribute sweets to celebrate the acquittal of Asia Bibi, in Multan.
“The prosecution has categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt,” concluded the chief justice and said she could immediately walk free from jail if not wanted in connection with any other case. “It is ironical that in the Arabic language the appellant’s name Asia means ‘sinful’,” reads the judgment written by Justice Asif Khosa, “but in the circumstances of the present case she appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘more sinned against than sinning’.”
The detailed verdict observed that “It is the duty of the State to ensure that no incident of blasphemy shall take place in the country,” adding that “… However, it is not for the individuals, or a gathering (mob), to decide as to whether any act” amounts to blasphemy. “It is the mandate of the Court to make such decision after conducting a fully qualified trial and on the basis of credible evidence brought before.”
How many people have been executed under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws?
No one has ever been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, according to Amnesty International. However, some are imprisoned awaiting a verdict while people from different religious backgrounds, including Muslims, have been attacked and killed by felons following blasphemy accusations.
Several thousand Islamist hardliners protested as Pakistan saw a pivotal ruling in the country’s most notorious blasphemy case.
One of the most noticeable incidents is the assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in 2011 by one of his security guards after campaigning for Bibi while Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was killed in 2011 for being an outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws.
What happens now?
Asia Bibi is expected to leave the country as she has been offered asylum by several countries. Her husband Ashiq Masih and their two daughters, eagerly await her in London. The ruling, which was welcomed by human rights advocates, was strongly condemned by radical Islamist parties who blocked roads in major cities of the country immediately after the acquittal.