Blasphemy Laws: An Excuse for Persecution

By The NYT Editorial Board

It is good news that Pakistan’s Supreme Court has acquitted and freed a Pakistani Christian woman who had already spent eight years on death row for blasphemy. In a 56-page ruling, the three justices said Asia Bibi, a farmworker in her early 50s, was the victim of mob justice aroused by unsubstantiated claims of what she said about the Prophet Muhammad in an exchange with women angry that she had sipped water from a cup used by Muslims.

Though the trial was a farce, overturning it took courage. In 2011, the governor of Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, who had campaigned for Ms. Bibi’s release and for changes in the blasphemy laws, was shot and killed by his bodyguard. Two months later, the minister of minorities, the sole Christian in the Pakistani government, who had also called for the changes, was killed. The announcement of the Supreme Court ruling on Oct. 31 set off protests across Pakistan and a warning from Islamist firebrands that the justices were risking death. Ms. Bibi has been in hiding since her release and may have to flee Pakistan.

But this is not a story about the triumph of tolerance over antiquated law. Ms. Bibi was freed not because the court found that the blasphemy law violated her rights or was in any other way inherently wrong, but because the trial was flawed. Blasphemy, broadly defined as speaking insultingly about God or religion, remains a capital crime in Pakistan and illegal in many other lands, in the East and the West.

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