Pakistan's top court on Tuesday upheld its acquittal of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, clearing the last legal hurdle and freeing Aasia Bibi to leave the country in a move that dealt a blow to radical Islamists who had demanded her execution.
Following the landmark decision, Bibi will finally be able to join her daughters who earlier fled to Canada, where they have been given asylum.
Bibi's lawyer, Saiful Malook, who returned to Islamabad after fleeing the country amid death threats, called the decision a victory for Pakistan's constitution and rule of law.
The three-judge Supreme Court panel had "insisted on very strict proofs of blasphemy" and found none, Malook said, expressing hope that Bibi's acquittal will deter false blasphemy allegations in the future.
From her secret location, Bibi watched the decision reported live on local television, according to a friend who spoke to her as it was being announced. Bibi's first thoughts were for her daughters, the friend said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he fears reprisals from radical religious militants.
"I am really grateful to everybody, now after nine years it is confirmed that I am free and I will be going to hug my daughters," he quoted Bibi as saying.
Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa led the panel of judges that dismissed the petition asking the court review its Oct. 31 acquittal of Bibi and send her back to prison and eventual execution. He said in court that Bibi's accusers were guilty of perjury and that if the case had not been so sensitive, they should have been jailed for life.
"The image of Islam we are showing to the world gives me much grief and sorrow," Khosa said.
Much of the evidence presented against Bibi was suspicious, and some of it appeared to be fabricated, he said, adding that the cleric who lodged the initial charge of blasphemy gave contradictory statements that were unchallenged in the trial.