Pakistan Army, on Friday, 2 November, warned the radical Islamist hardliners protesting against the acquittal of Aasia Bibi, to not test their "patience". The army asked the protesters to end the standoff peacefully so they could avoid using force.
Pakistan's Supreme Court had on Wednesday, 31 October, set aside the death sentence for Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who was earlier convicted of blasphemy and accused of insulting Prophet Mohammad.
Aasia Bibi was sentenced to death in 2010 for insulting the Prophet during a fight over water with women of the Muslim community in her village, Itanwali, in Punjab. She always maintained her innocence, but has spent most of the past eight years in solitary confinement.
Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar announced the verdict to a packed courtroom and ordered Aasia Bibi’s release. She has been held at an undisclosed location for security reasons, and is expected to leave the country, AP reported.
The verdict triggered widespread protests by several religious parties who condemned the court’s decision to let Aasia walk free.
Army spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor told state-run channel PTV that a government team, including a representative of ISI, was holding talks with the protesters.
He said the army had seen statements of protest leaders against the military but it was showing tolerance as its focus was on militancy and to get the country out of the security problems.
“We have shown patience. We have no link with the case (of Bibi) but we want that justice should prevail. We also want that the Army should not be forced to take action (against protestors) which it is empowered under the law to take.”Asif Ghafoor, as quoted by PTI
According to news agency AFP, Saiful Mulook, Aasia Bibi’s lawyer, said he will continue his fight against intolerance despite facing threats.
“I think it’s better to die as a brave and strong man than to die as a mouse and fearful person — I extend my legal help to all people.”Saiful Mulook, Aasia Bibi’s lawyer
Major Roads Blocked, Business Activities Shut Down
On 2 November, the protest entered the third day and several major roads in Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi and other cities were blocked, according to police.
The education institutions were also closed in Punjab, while private schools were closed in Khyber-Pakhtukhwa provinces as well as in cities like Karachi and Islamabad. Many universities across Pakistan announced cancellation of papers due to the ongoing tense situation.
According to a notification from the Karachi Commissioner's office, roads and junctions were blocked at 22 locations in the six districts of the city. Business and trade activities were also badly affected as around 14 religious parties took part in Friday's shut down.
An industry leader said that the ongoing protests had led to a virtual shutdown of business activities in Karachi as labour attendance is thin and truckers have refused to transport finished goods.
Imran Khan’s Appeal To Protesters
The announcement of the verdict sparked violent protests across Pakistan prompted Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to say that he was “compelled” to communicate with the nation.
Khan said Pakistan was found “in the name of Islam” and the verdict delivered by the Supreme Court is constitutional. He took a tough stance against hardliners and warned the protesters, “I appeal to these elements, do not clash with the state.”
Khan argued against vandalism and said the government will take action if the protestors did not withdraw. The government will fulfil its responsibility of protecting lives and property, he added.
While the Supreme Court has ordered Bibi's immediate release, there are no reports about measures taken for her protection, Dawn reported.
Cheering the top court’s verdict for restoring justice, several people have questioned if Aasia, her family and her lawyer will be provided protection amid simmering protests across the country.
Expected clashes, authorities have stepped up security at churches across Pakistan.
What had happened in 2009?
In June 2009, Muslim women refused to drink or touch a container that Bibi had fetched after her employer asked her to get water, The Telegraph reported.
Five days after the incident, an angry mob around Bibi’s house accused her of insulting Prophet Mohammad. The mob demanded that Bibi “recant and convert to Islam.”
Police protected Bibi until they gave in to the pressure from the angry mob and arrested her.
Media reports have claimed that evidence from two witnesses in the case, who were proved to be absent during the altercation, were contradictory.