Pakistan's Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of a Christian woman facing execution for blasphemy, in a landmark decision that sparked angry protests and death threats from a hard-line Islamist party.
Chief Justice Saqib Nisar on October 31 overturned the conviction by the Lahore High Court that had sentenced Asia Bibi, a mother of five, to death in 2010 for allegedly insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad -- a charge Bibi has denied.
The court ordered that Bibi be freed. She is being held at an undisclosed location for security reasons.
The court decision was hailed by rights activists, with Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director for Amnesty International, calling it "a landmark verdict."
However, the ruling angered supporters of the hard-line Tehrik-e Labaik Pakistan (TLP) Islamist party who blocked roads in major cities, pelting police with stones in the eastern city of Lahore.
The TLP called for the ouster of Khan's government and said that Nasir, the chief justice, and "all those who ordered the release of Asia deserve death."
In a televised speech later in the day, Prime Minister Imran Khan appealed for calm and hit out at extremists.
"They are inciting you for their own political gain. You should not get trapped by them for the sake of the country. They are doing no service to Islam," Khan said.
He also said that "the state will fulfill its responsibility" and asked the Islamists not to compel the state to take action against them.
Bibi's conviction and death sentence had outraged Christians worldwide. Pope Benedict XVI called for her release in 2010, while in 2015 her daughter met his successor and the current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis.
In 2011, two government officials -- a Pakistani governor and a minister of minorities -- were assassinated for having spoken out in support of Bibi.
Insulting Islam is punishable by death in Pakistan, and the mere rumor of blasphemy can lead to lynchings by mobs.
Bibi was sentenced to death by a district court in the central province of Punjab in 2010 for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.
Christians make up only about 2 percent of Pakistan's population and are sometimes discriminated against.
Approximately 40 people are believed to be on death row or serving a life sentence in Pakistan for blasphemy, according to a 2018 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
At least 1,472 people were charged under Pakistan's blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2016, according to the Lahore-based Center for Social Justice.
It said Muslims constituted a majority of those prosecuted, followed by members of the Ahmadi, Christian, and Hindu minorities.
Rights groups say the laws are increasingly exploited by religious extremists as well as by ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.
No judicial execution for blasphemy has ever occurred in Pakistan, but 20 of those charged were killed.
People like Bibi who are charged with blasphemy but later freed have had to flee the country for their own safety.