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Introduction

The complainants had quarrelled with Asia Bibi, and could be reasonably suspected of having dragged her to the court out of malice.

The fact that a formal police complaint was lodged at least five days after the incident created further suspicions that evidence could have been fabricated.

And if that were not enough, some glaring disparities emerged in the depositions of different witnesses about the specifics of what happened when, where, and in whose presence.

As in many countries, Pakistan’s criminal justice system puts the burden of proof on the prosecution. It applies strict rules of evidence to ensure the case is proved beyond all reasonable doubt.

The slightest deficiency anywhere along the process translates into a benefit for the defendant. But, for eight years, this was not what happened in Bibi’s case.

As is clear from Wednesday’s Supreme Court judgement, the case ought not to have travelled beyond the trial court stage in Sheikhupura district back in 2010.

But it did, because it was no ordinary case. And because it was no ordinary case, the ruling is likely to go down in the annals of Pakistani law as an historic judgement.

Observers of Pakistan’s legal scene point out that the blasphemy charges against Asia Bibi were not unique.

There have been cases in which men have been charged, convicted, or acquitted under controversial blasphemy law that dates from 1986.

But Bibi’s case was different. For a start, she was the first female non-Muslim charged.

And it sparked two successive assassinations of top government officials as well as a hanging.

Significantly, it all happened at a time when Pakistan was entering a new democratic phase at the end of an eight-year-long military rule. The powerful security establishment was struggling to maintain control over political decision-making.

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