Pakistan Acquits Christian Woman Facing Death for Blasphemy

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Pakistan's supreme court has struck down the death sentence for blasphemy handed down to Christian woman Asia Bibi, in a long-delayed, landmark decision that has seen the judiciary praised for its bravery in the face of threats of violence and protest from the country's Islamist groups.

Blasphemy is an incendiary charge in deeply conservative Muslim Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam and its Prophet Mohammed can provoke death at the hands of vigilantes - and the acquittal immediately sparked large protests from hardliners.

It has been ordered that Ms Bibi should be released if she has not committed any other crime. "Pakistan's Supreme Court must be appreciated that it upheld the law of the land and didn't succumb to any pressure". "Her conviction is set aside", said CJP in the ruling.

She was then told off by a Muslim neighbor, who turned to other Muslim women in the area to tell them the Christian devotee had dirtied the water by drinking from their cup.

In February, Ms. Bibi's husband Ashiq Masih and one of her daughters met with Pope Francis shortly before Rome's ancient Colosseum was lit in red one evening in solidarity with persecuted Christians, and Ms. Bibi in particular.

Bibi says she was falsely accused and is very respectful of Muslims and Mohammed.

Earlier this month, the leader of the Islamic party Tehreek-i-Labbaik threatened to "paralyse the country within hours" if the court set Ms Bibi free - and the civilian government has been unwilling to take them on over any change to the law. Dozens have been killed following blasphemy claims, sometimes by mobs of men.

Pakistani paramilitary soldiers stand guard outside the Supreme Court building in Islamabad on Wednesday. Mere calls to reform the law have provoked violence, most notably the assassination of Mr Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan's most populous province Punjab, by his own bodyguard in broad daylight in Islamabad in 2011.

Prosecutors alleged that in the row which followed, the women said Asia Bibi should convert to Islam and that she made three offensive comments about the Prophet Muhammad in response.

Ms Bibi's lawyer Saiful Mulook told Reuters: "It is great news for Pakistan and rest of the world". A previous appeal hearing was adjourned in 2016 on a legal technicality.

The decision is a victory for human rights activists, who said the country's blasphemy law has been used to settle personal scores or to attack minority communities.

Bibi's representatives have claimed she was involved in a dispute with her neighbours and that her accusers had contradicted themselves.