World News

Pakistan Makes Concessions to Protesters in Blasphemy Case

Posted November 2, 2018 6:55 p.m. EDT
Updated November 2, 2018 6:59 p.m. EDT

KARACHI, Pakistan — After protesters blocked highways and forced the closing of schools and businesses, the Pakistani government and Islamist leaders enraged over the acquittal of a Christian woman accused of blasphemy reached an agreement Friday night that allows further appeals and bars her from leaving the country.

The woman, Asia Bibi, was convicted in 2010 on little evidence of violating Pakistan’s law against blasphemy by insulting the Prophet Muhammad. She spent years on death row before she was acquitted Wednesday by the country’s Supreme Court.

Despite her legal victory, which was hailed worldwide by rights groups, Bibi’s lawyers and her family have expressed fears for her safety because hard-line Islamist parties in Pakistan have called for her execution.

Under the accord, which some analysts viewed as a capitulation to extremists, the government agreed not to oppose the filing of an appeal in the Supreme Court of Bibi’s acquittal. It also agreed to initiate legal proceedings to prevent her from traveling abroad.

The government also said it would release all protesters who had been arrested since Wednesday. For their part, the protesting religious leaders offered an apology if their statements had offended anyone, an apparent reference to their criticism of the military leadership.

While several Western countries have offered to grant Bibi asylum, allowing her to leave Pakistan immediately would provoke further turmoil for the new government of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Khan is on a visit to China, seeking a financial bailout package for the country’s distressed economy.

The protesters, led by a firebrand cleric named Khadim Hussain Rizvi, had been demanding that Bibi be placed on the exit-control list, a roster of people barred from leaving Pakistan.

Ben-Her Gill, a leader of the Christian community in Islamabad, the capital, said Bibi was still in Pakistan, at a secret location under the protection of authorities.

Protesters took to the streets of several cities Friday, demanding that the Supreme Court reverse its ruling and that the three justices on the panel that had issued it, including Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, be dismissed.

Mobile networks were suspended in Islamabad and in three other major cities in Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, as authorities tried to stop protesters from organizing and expanding the demonstrations.

A highway connecting Islamabad to the city of Lahore was blocked, and rail networks across the country were severely slowed by the protests. Schools in Islamabad, Punjab and Kashmir were closed because of the demonstrations.

Religious leaders had also demanded the ouster of the head of Pakistan’s military, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, accusing him of acquiescing to Bibi’s release. Soon after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Pir Muhammad Afzal Qadri, another prominent protest leader, urged army generals to revolt against their top commander.

The military said Friday that it had nothing to do with Bibi’s release. “The armed forces hope that this matter is resolved without disruption of peace,” Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, the army’s spokesman, was quoted by state-run media as saying.

Bibi, a mother of five in her early 50s, has been a central figure in the debate over Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, which critics say are often used to persecute and intimidate members of religious minorities. Blasphemy is a highly combustible subject in Pakistan, with emotions flaring over mere rumors that Islam has been insulted. People accused of it are often killed by mobs even before police can take action, rights groups say.

Bibi was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad after getting into an argument with Muslim farmworkers in June 2009 in her native village in Punjab. She was dragged to a local police station and charged with blasphemy. In 2010 she was convicted and sentenced to death, the first woman ever sent to Pakistan’s death row for blasphemy.

In 2011, Salmaan Taseer, an outspoken secular governor of Punjab province who had campaigned for Bibi’s release and for changes in the blasphemy laws, was shot and killed by his own police bodyguard outside a cafe in an upscale area of Islamabad.

Two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister of minorities and the only Christian Cabinet minister in the Pakistani government, was shot to death outside his home in Islamabad after he, too, called for changes to the blasphemy law.

“The stakes attached to Ms. Bibi’s case are extremely high,” said Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer based in Lahore.

“These groups have always extracted their pound of flesh,” said Ijaz, who predicted that the government would be forced to give in to some of the protesters’ demands. “They’ve escalated to a point where it has become difficult for the government to avoid that fate. What that means for Asia Bibi, who has endured close to a decade of incarceration, remains uncertain.”