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Islamists Protest For Second Day After Christian Woman Acquitted Of Blasphemy

Supporters of Jamiat Talaba Islam, the student wing of religious political party Jamaat-e-Islami, hold signs as they chant slogans after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy.

Islamist protesters have blocked roads in Pakistan's major cities for a second day in opposition to a Supreme Court decision to acquit a Christian woman who spent eight years on death row for blasphemy.

After her acquittal on October 31, Asia Bibi was freed and taken to an undisclosed location for her safety, amid angry protests and death threats from a hard-line Islamist party.

Her lawyer said she would soon leave the country. France and Spain have offered asylum to the 54-year-old mother of five, who is a Roman Catholic.

Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, who on October 31 overturned Bibi's 2010 conviction for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad, said there was insufficient evidence that she violated Pakistan's blasphemy law and suggesting the accusations against her were "false."

The court decision was hailed by rights activists, with Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director for Amnesty International, calling it "a landmark verdict."

But followers of the hard-line Islamist Tehrik-e Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party were enraged, party blocking some 10 key roads in the southern city of Karachi and others in eastern Lahore on November 1, Pakistani media reported.

Private schools in both cities were shut, as well as in the capital, Islambad.

Prime Minister Imran Khan warned the protesters the government would not tolerate any prolonged blockade.

"We will not allow any damages. We will not allow traffic to be blocked," Khan said in a televised address late on October 31. "I appeal to you, do not push the state to the extent that it is forced to take action."

Khan's broadcast followed comments by a senior TLP leader calling for Chief Justice Nisar and other two judges to be killed.

"They all three deserve to be killed," TLP co-founder Muhammad Afzal Qadri told a protest in Lahore. "Either their security, their driver, or their cook should kill them."

Qadri also called for the ouster of Khan's new government.

Pakistani security forces deployed outside churches to protect minority Christians and urged demonstrators to disperse peacefully. Commandos were sent to protect Nisar and the other two judges of the high court who received death threats.

The case has divided Pakistan for a long time, where two politicians who sought to help Bibi were assassinated, and outraged Christians worldwide, with Pope Francis saying he personally prayed for Bibi.

Insulting Islam is punishable by death in Pakistan, and the mere rumor of blasphemy can lead to lynchings by mobs.

An undated handout photo made available by the family shows Asia Bibi, who was convicted in 2009.
An undated handout photo made available by the family shows Asia Bibi, who was convicted in 2009.

Bibi was sentenced to death by a district court in the central province of Punjab in 2010 for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim. Bibi always denied the allegations.

Christians make up only about 2 percent of Pakistan's population and are sometimes discriminated against.

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.

At least 1,472 people were charged under Pakistan's blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2016, according to the Lahore-based Center for Social Justice.

It said Muslims constituted a majority of those prosecuted, followed by members of the Ahmadi, Christian, and Hindu minorities.

Rights groups say the laws are increasingly exploited by religious extremists as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.

No judicial execution for blasphemy has ever occurred in Pakistan, but 20 of those charged were murdered.

Bibi's lawyer Malook said she would be secreted out of the country quickly, and he told the Associated Press he expected to follow suit because he has also received death threats.

"I am afraid I will have to leave Pakistan. That is the only way to save my life," he said.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the U.S.-based Wilson Center, called the court ruling a "major legal milestone for Pakistan."

Its significance, however, should not be overstated, and the power of the religiously motivated mob should not be understated, he said.

"The increasing political clout of religious hard-liners, who boast the ability to mobilize in a big way, suggests that the state will be under more pressure than ever before," he said. "The sobering reality is that it's not going to get any easier to push for reform, much less repeal, of the blasphemy law, despite this landmark and very brave decision by the Pakistani Supreme Court."

With reporting by AP, AFP, dpa, RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, and Reuters