ISLAMABAD: Pakistan`s Supreme Court will on Tuesday begin a review of its acquittal of a Christian woman charged with blasphemy, a verdict that sparked days of Islamist protests over a case that has divided society and incited killings.
Asia Bibi, who spent eight years on death row, has been in hiding since the Supreme Court freed her in October, with religious hardliners calling for her death and demanding that the government prevent her from leaving the country.
Most reviews of Supreme Court verdicts are dismissed immediately, but the controversy, anger and fear surrounding the case has added an extra layer of uncertainty. A three-judge panel, including new Supreme Court Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, is due to hear the case.
Bibi`s lawyer, Saif-ul-Malook, who fled to Europe due to fears for his safety last year, told Reuters he expected the case to be dismissed. "They have filed the petition on flimsy grounds. They haven`t attempted to counter her release on constitutional grounds," said Malook, who returned to Pakistan this week and will represent Bibi in court.
"God willing, she will have the decision in her favour tomorrow. She will be a free person to go anywhere she wants to." If allowed to do so, Bibi is widely expected to seek asylum abroad due to safety concerns. In November, Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau said his country was in talks with Pakistan about helping her.
Bibi, a farm worker, was convicted in 2010 of making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbours working in the fields with her objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.
She has always denied committing blasphemy. The governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his bodyguard in 2011 after speaking in Bibi`s defence. Federal minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was killed later that year after calling for her release.
The violence stifled debate on Pakistan`s draconian blasphemy law, which critics say is often abused and unfairly targets religious minorities.
Protesting members of the hardline Islamist Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) group, founded by supporters of Taseer`s assassin, blocked main roads in Pakistan`s biggest cites for three days after Bibi`s acquittal.
They called for the killing of the Supreme Court judges who freed her, urging their cooks and servants to murder them.
The TLP called off the protests after striking a deal with the government to put Bibi on an "exit control list", barring her from leaving the country. The government later cracked down on the TLP, detaining more than 3,000 activists and pressing terrorism charges against its leaders.
The TLP`s acting chief, Shafeeq Ameeni, warned that the court panel should not make a "wrong decision". "We will not tolerate an attack on the sanctity of our prophet," he said in a video statement.
"We don`t want the country to go up in flames because of a wrong decision."
Bibi`s case has outraged Christians worldwide and dismayed moderate Pakistanis, though few dare to speak out. "No one should be able to intimidate the Supreme Court into reversing a long-overdue ruling. Asia Bibi has been found to be innocent," said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director for Amnesty International.
"She should now finally be free to be reunited with her family and leave the country if she chooses."