ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's Supreme Court Wednesday overturned the conviction of a Christian mother facing execution for blasphemy in a landmark case which has incited deadly violence and reached as far as the Vatican.
"The appeal is allowed. She has been acquitted. The judgement of high court, as well as trial court, is reversed. Her conviction is set aside," said Pakistan's Chief Justice Saqib Nisar in the ruling.
Blasphemy is an incendiary charge in deeply conservative Muslim Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam and its Prophet Mohammed can provoke a violent and bloody death at the hands of vigilantes.
Asia Bibi's case drew the attention of international rights groups and swiftly became the most high-profile in the country.
Pope Benedict XVI called for her release in 2010, while in 2015 her daughter met his successor and the current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis.
Freedom for Bibi in Pakistan, where university students have been lynched and Christians burnt in ovens over blasphemy claims, means a life under threat by hardliners, who regularly hold demonstrations calling for her execution.
The allegations against Bibi date back to 2009, when she was working in a field and was asked to fetch water. Muslim women she was labouring with allegedly objected, saying that as a non-Muslim she was unfit to touch the water bowl.
The women went to a local cleric and accused Bibi of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed, a charge punishable by death under colonial-era legislation.
During the appeal hearing on October 8, a three-member panel of Supreme Court justices appeared to question the case against her, with Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, considered Pakistan's top expert in criminal law, listing flaws in the proceedings.
"I don't see any derogatory remarks vis-a-vis the holy Koran as per the FIR," added Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, referring to the initial complaint filed in the case.
Approximately 40 people are believed to be on death row or serving a life sentence in Pakistan for blasphemy, according to a 2018 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Leading rights groups have long criticised the legislation, saying it is routinely abused to justify censorship, persecution, and even murder of minorities.
In recent years, it has also been weaponised to smear dissenters and politicians.
Mere calls to reform the law have provoked violence, most notably the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan's most populous province Punjab, by his own bodyguard in broad daylight in Islamabad in 2011.
Taseer had also called for Bibi's release. His assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was executed in 2016 and has been feted as a hero by hardliners, with a shrine to him built by Islamists just outside the capital.
Politicians including new prime minister Imran Khan invoked blasphemy during a general election this summer, vowing to defend the laws.
Analysts have warned the tactic could deepen sectarian fractures and potentially spill into violence.