The Pakistan Supreme Court yesterday rejected a bid to overrule the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman sentenced to death by hanging for blasphemy eight years ago.

According to a report in The Guardian, Chief justice Asif Saeed Khosa, one of a three-judge panel that considered the petition, said: “Based on merit, this review petition is dismissed.” He added: “The image of Islam we are showing to the world gives me much grief and sorrow.”

Late last year, Bibi’s death sentence was overturned by the same court in a landmark ruling, sparking violent protest. Despite the positive judgment, she has been kept in custody and not allowed to leave the country. Out of concern for her safety more than 230 international parliamentarians signed an open letter in November urging the Pakistani government to secure safe passage from the country.

Alliance Defending Freedom International, a legal organization protecting human dignity and promoting fundamental freedom worldwide which has been advocating for Asia Bibi, said in a press release today that, following the Supreme Court’s confirmation of its acquittal of the mother of five, “We now hope that she is allowed to finally leave the country and urge the Government of Pakistan to secure Bibi’s and her family’s safe exit. “

ADF also expressed gratitude to the “parliamentarians from different countries and across the political spectrum who have raised their voices in support of, and in solidarity with, Asia Bibi.

“Nobody should be persecuted because of their faith. While the right to religious freedom is protected by the Pakistani constitution, we nonetheless see Christians face severe persecution and denial of their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

“Sadly, Asia Bibi’s case is not an isolated incident but testifies to the plight that many Christians experience in Pakistan today. Blasphemy laws directly violate international law. All people have the right to freely choose, and live out, their faith. We, therefore, urge all governments to uphold this right by ceasing enforcement and initiating repeal of their blasphemy laws.”

After spending eight years on death row, Asia Bibi’s conviction was overturned in a decision by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in October 2018. She had been accused of blasphemy for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Islam. In response to the Supreme Court decision, there were violent demonstrations calling for her execution.

Pakistan has come under significant international scrutiny, ADF notes. Those concerns are expressed in an open letter supported by prominent signatories from across the globe.

“We urge in the strongest possible terms the Government of Pakistan to guarantee safe passage for Asia, her family, and any of those under threat due to their part in the decision to acquit her, to any country that accepts them,” states the open letter. (Find the letter here.)

It emphasizes the importance of “the rule of law and the fundamental human rights to freedom of religion and expression.” The letter holds particular political weight as many of its signatories represent countries providing financial aid to Pakistan, says ADF.

A number of countries have offered Asia Bibi asylum and some unconfirmed reports say several members of her family may already be abroad, according to the BBC.

The vast majority of those convicted under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, says the BBC, are Muslims or members of the Ahmadi community who identify themselves as Muslims but are regarded as heretical by orthodox Islam. But since the 1990s scores of Christians have also been convicted. They make up just 1.6 percent of the population.

The Christian community has been targeted by numerous attacks in recent years, leaving many feeling vulnerable to a climate of intolerance.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet