STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Protesters are already on the streets after Pakistan's highest court made a ruling on the explosive subject of religion. The court overturned the death penalty for a woman accused of blasphemy. This was a case from 2010. A Christian woman was accused by fellow farmworkers in the overwhelmingly Muslim country.
Her case was seen as a test of religious freedom or of simple fairness because the blasphemy law has been commonly invoked to seek revenge or win disputes. But it was hard to support the woman in a country where that can get people killed. NPR's Diaa Hadid has been following this case, and she's on the line. Hi, Diaa.
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hello.
INSKEEP: Her name is Asia Bibi. What exactly did she supposedly do?
HADID: So her Muslim colleagues, fellow farmhands, accused her of insulting Islam. We don't know exactly what she said. In the verdict, it just hot words were exchanged. But her advocates have always maintained that the Muslim farmworkers were angry that she was trying to drink out of the same drinking vessel as them.
INSKEEP: And so this may have been a dispute, from our perspective, about nothing, but she ends up with the death penalty. What has happened since?
HADID: Right. So this has been a case that's roiled Pakistan, and it's spent about eight years - since she was given the death penalty, it's been working its way through the courts since. But during that time, we've sort of seen the power of the extreme religious right in Pakistan. A minister who spoke out in support of Bibi was assassinated.
So it was a provincial governor. He was killed by his own bodyguard in an upscale cafe just a few miles from where I'm standing. That bodyguard was later executed, but now there's a shrine to him right outside of Islamabad, and he's revered as a near saint by the religious right. And in that, you can kind of see the power that these accusations can wield.
INSKEEP: And you can imagine there why Pakistan's Supreme Court would have taken its time before announcing this ruling freeing the woman. What was the scene like as they finally did make the ruling?
HADID: Right. So we were in the courthouse at the time, and it was very, very terse, which is unusual for the Supreme Court here. The judges walked in, all three of them. They sat down. And within a minute, they'd announced their verdict. She'd been acquitted. She was free to go.
We rushed out. And as we rushed out, we could actually see security forces rushing into the direction of the Supreme Court to shut down the area so demonstrators couldn't reach there. They've been on high alert since yesterday because they were worried about violence. And even on the roads to the Supreme Court, we could see these big containers. They're big trucking containers that they use to block roads.
So we raced, actually, to an intersection that's a few miles from the Supreme Court where we knew there were demonstrators from the extreme religious right, and they were chanting there against Asia Bibi already. You can have a listen here.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).
HADID: They're saying, "we hear and obey you, oh, prophet of Islam." But this wasn't about that. What they were saying when we were speaking to them, they were saying Asia Bibi was cursed, she deserved to die. And they were even saying the judges who ruled to acquit Asia Bibi deserved to be killed because their judgment was against Islam.
INSKEEP: Diaa, when you say the judges came in very quickly, gave the ruling and left, I mean, I have this image of Supreme Court justices knowing they have to flee pretty quickly after that. Is there a serious fear of more assassinations, more violence?
HADID: Absolutely. And that's why the country is on high alert. Even Asia Bibi and her family, as far as we understand, they may well now be evacuated from the country. It's just not safe for them anymore. But the question is now, what about the Christian communities that remain? How much can these security forces keep order in a country where blasphemy is such a powerful issue?
INSKEEP: Diaa, thanks for the reporting. Really appreciate it.
HADID: Thank you.
INSKEEP: NPR's Diaa Hadid is in Islamabad, Pakistan, where the country's Supreme Court has freed a woman who had been accused and convicted and sentenced to death for blasphemy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.