Pakistan has freed a Christian woman who spent eight years on death row after its Supreme Court acquitted her of blasphemy charges in a landmark decision that ignited angry protests and death threats from a hard-line Islamist party.
After her release late on October 31, Asia Bibi was taken to an undisclosed location for her safety, and 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 earlier in the day overturned Bibi's conviction by the Lahore High Court in 2010 for allegedly insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad, saying 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."
However, the ruling angered supporters of the hard-line Islamist Tehrik-e Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party, who blocked roads in major cities, pelting police with stones in the eastern city of Lahore.
Hundreds of Islamists blocked a road linking the city of Rawalpindi with the capital, Islamabad, and protests were held in Karachi, Peshawar and other cities. In the eastern city of Multan, police arrested several demonstrators after clashes.
The TLP called for the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan's government and said that Nasir, the chief justice, and "all those who ordered the release of Asia deserve death."
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.
Khan in a televised speech appealed for calm and questioned the motives of the extremists, who have made calls for enforcing the blasphemy law a central rallying cry and have attacked those who question it.
"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.
Khan said that "the state will fulfill its responsibility" and asked the Islamists not to compel the security forces to take action against them.
Bibi's conviction and death sentence had outraged Christians worldwide. 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.
In 2011, two government officials -- a Pakistani governor and a minister of minorities -- were assassinated for having called for reform of the blasphemy law and speaking out in support of Bibi.
Insulting Islam is punishable by death in Pakistan, and the mere rumor of blasphemy can lead to lynchings by mobs.
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."