ISLAMABAD: A call by Pakistani religious hardliners for protests fell flat yesterday as Asia Bibi, the Christian woman at the centre of a years-long blasphemy row, was expected to leave the country having cleared a last legal hurdle. The Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), which led days of violent mass demonstrations after Bibi was acquitted of blasphemy last year, announced new protests after the Supreme Court upheld her innocence in a fresh ruling Tuesday.

LAHORE: Activists of the Sunni Tehreek group protest against the Supreme Court decision on the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman accused of blasphemy. - AFP

But its leaders remain in detention after a government crackdown several weeks ago, and police deployed heavily at the junction between the capital Islamabad and neighboring Rawalpindi which the TLP had designated as a protest site, preventing any huge gathering. A mere 20 people demonstrated in Lahore while just eight mobilized in Rawalpindi, despite emotive calls from the TLP that its supporters "cannot compromise on the honor of the Prophet".

Bibi, a laborer from central Punjab province, was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and was on death row until her acquittal last year. She has been in protective custody since, and the government has refused to reveal her whereabouts for fear of her being targeted by vigilantes. On Tuesday the Supreme Court threw out a petition seeking a final appeal in the case, which has drawn worldwide attention to religious extremism in Pakistan.

"Is this the face of Islam that we want to show to the world?" Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa asked a packed courtroom in Islamabad as he delivered the decision, expressing frustration at the furious reaction by an extremist minority to Bibi's case over the years. The ruling has set the stage for Bibi to finally leave the country. Speculation is rampant that she will seek asylum in a North American or European country, and unconfirmed reports suggest her children have already fled to Canada.

Blasphemy remains a massively inflammatory issue in Pakistan, where even unproven accusations of insulting Islam can spark lynchings. Many cases see Muslims accusing Muslims, and rights activists say blasphemy charges are frequently used to settle personal scores. Minorities -- particularly Christians -- are often caught in the crossfire, while mere calls to reform the colonial-era laws against blasphemy have also provoked violence. - AFP