Pakistan PM Khan calls for calm as protests erupt after blasphemy verdict

by Gohar ABBAS
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Asia Bibi (left) pictured alongside former governor of Punjab Salman Taseer who was later assassinated for supporting Christian minorities

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan hit out at religious hardliners and appealed for calm Wednesday after extremists called for the country's Supreme Court justices to be murdered for overturning the conviction of a Christian woman facing execution for blasphemy.

Khan, who took to the nation's airwaves several hours after the court ordered the acquittal of Asia Bibi, delivered a forceful call for Pakistanis to respect the verdict which sparked protests across the country.

"They are inciting you for their own political gain, you should not get trapped by them for the sake of the country, they are doing no service to Islam," Khan said in a televised broadcast.

"We will protect people's properties and lives, we will not allow any sabotage, we will not allow any traffic to be stopped," he added.

Blasphemy is an incendiary charge in deeply conservative Muslim Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam and its Prophet Mohammed can provoke death at the hands of vigilantes.

Demonstrations broke out in major cities across Pakistan in the ruling's wake, with club-wielding protesters blocking Islamabad's main highway and barricading roads in Karachi and Lahore.

One of the most vocal groups -- the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) -- called for "mutiny" against the army's top brass and the assassination of the top court's justices.

"The Muslim generals of the army, it is their responsibility that they should launch a rebellion against these generals," Afzal Qadri -- a TLP leader -- told supporters in Lahore.

For hours the acquittal was met with near silence on the country's airwaves as broadcasters appeared to steer clear of covering the controversial topic.

Khan, who has previously caused concern with his full-throated defence of blasphemy laws during his recent election campaign, vowed on Wednesday to hit back against hardliners inciting violence, saying the inflammatory rhetoric would only benefit "Pakistan's enemies".

- Protection detail? -

Bibi was set to be released immediately according to the court, although there was no word if any security arrangements were being made for her protection.

Her legal team celebrated amid beefed-up security in Islamabad.

"The verdict has shown that the poor, the minorities and the lowest segments of society can get justice in this country despite its shortcomings," Bibi's lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook told AFP.

"This is the biggest and happiest day of my life."

Bibi appeared to be in a state of disbelief after hearing that Pakistan's Chief Justice Saqib Nisar had quashed her conviction nearly eight years after she was first sentenced to death.

"I can't believe what I am hearing, will I go out now? Will they let me out, really?" Bibi told AFP by phone from prison after the ruling.

"I just don't know what to say, I am very happy, I can't believe it."

Her case drew the attention of international rights groups and swiftly became the most high-profile in the country.

Pope Benedict XVI called for her release in 2010, while in 2015 her daughter met his successor and the current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis.

Freedom for Bibi in Pakistan, where university students have been lynched and Christians burnt in ovens over blasphemy claims, means a life under threat by hardliners, who regularly hold demonstrations calling for her execution.

The allegations against Bibi date back to 2009, when Muslim women she was labouring with in a field objected to sharing water with her because she was Christian.

After an argument, the women went to a local cleric and accused Bibi of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed, a charge punishable by death under colonial-era legislation.

- Long-criticised law -

During the appeal hearing on October 8, a three-member panel of Supreme Court justices appeared to question the case against her, with Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, considered Pakistan's top expert in criminal law, listing flaws in the proceedings.

"I don't see any derogatory remarks vis-a-vis the holy Koran as per the FIR," added Chief Justice Nisar, referring to the initial complaint filed in the case.

Approximately 40 people are believed to be on death row or serving a life sentence in Pakistan for blasphemy, according to a 2018 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Rights groups have long criticised the legislation, saying it is routinely abused to justify censorship, persecution, and even the murder of minorities.

In recent years, it has also been used to smear dissenters and politicians.

Mere calls to reform the law have provoked violence, most notably the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, by his own bodyguard in broad daylight in Islamabad in 2011.

His assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was executed in 2016 and has been feted as a hero by hardliners, who built a shrine to him just outside the capital.

Taseer had also called for Bibi's release and his son Shahbaz tweeted "Pakistan Zindabad" ("Long live Pakistan") following the ruling.

Asia Bibi (left) pictured alongside former governor of Punjab Salman Taseer who was later assassinated for supporting Christian minorities

Hardline religious political parties protested the acquittal of Asia Bibi

Bibi's lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook told AFP 'the verdict has shown that the poor, the minorities and the lowest segments of society can get justice in this country despite its shortcomings'

Bibi was set to be released immediately according to the court

Blasphemy is an incendiary charge in deeply conservative Muslim Pakistan