Calls for demonstrations by religious hardliners fail to attract large crowds amid heightened security
A call by religious hardliners for protests fell flat on Wednesday as Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman at the center of a years-long blasphemy row, was expected to leave Pakistan having cleared a last legal hurdle.
The Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), which led days of violent mass demonstrations after Bibi was acquitted of blasphemy last year, announced new protests after the Supreme Court upheld her innocence in a fresh ruling on Tuesday. But its leaders remain in detention after a government crackdown several weeks ago, and police deployed heavily at the junction between the capital Islamabad and neighboring Rawalpindi, which the TLP had designated as a protest site, preventing any huge gathering.
A mere 20 people demonstrated in Lahore while just eight mobilized in Rawalpindi, despite emotive calls from the TLP that its supporters “cannot compromise on the honor of [Islam’s] Prophet.”
Bibi, a laborer from central Punjab province, was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and was on death row until her acquittal last year. She has been in protective custody since, and the government has refused to reveal her whereabouts for fear of her being targeted by vigilantes.
On Tuesday the Supreme Court threw out a petition seeking a final appeal in the case, which has drawn worldwide attention to religious extremism in Pakistan.
“Is this the face of Islam that we want to show to the world?” Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa asked a packed courtroom in Islamabad as he delivered the decision, expressing frustration at the furious reaction by an extremist minority to Bibi’s case over the years.
The ruling has set the stage for Bibi to finally leave the country.
Speculation is rampant that she will seek asylum in a North American or European country, and unconfirmed reports suggest her children have already fled to Canada.
Blasphemy remains a massively inflammatory issue in Pakistan, where even unproven accusations of insulting Islam can spark lynchings. Many cases see Muslims accusing Muslims, and rights activists say blasphemy charges are frequently used to settle personal scores. Minorities—particularly Christians—are often caught in the crossfire, while mere calls to reform the colonial-era laws against blasphemy have also provoked violence.