NEW DELHI: The historic verdict in Pakistan that acquitted Asia Bibi -- a Christian woman charged with blasphemy and facing the death penalty -- is accompanied by large scale protests.

Islamist movement Tehreek-e Labbaik (TLP) had previously vowed to take to the streets if Asia Bibi was released, and as the Supreme Court announced its verdict, large groups of protesters gathered in Islamabad and Lahore. The protests quickly gained momentum, with demonstrators blocking a motorway in Lahore and closing off key roads and highways. At the time of writing, Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code has been implemented, preventing gatherings of more than four people.

The protests evoked a strong condemnation from Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who slammed the violence as a "disgusting response" to the top court's decision. "You are not aiding Islam by talking about killing judges and by killing our generals who have sacrificed so much for our country," Khan said in an unequivocal defence of the verdict. "I am appealing to our people: Do not get caught up by the worlds of these people who only want to increase their vote bank."

"This government will not stand aside and see property and livelihoods being destroyed. Do not force us to take action,” Khan said in a statement directed at the Tehreek-e Labbaik (TLP), the organisation leading the protests.

Asia Bibi’s case has received international attention, as it serves as an example of the implications of Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy law. Rights organisations and others have long held that the blasphemy law is misused to silence and curb dissent, and even attack and punish the country’s minorities.

Asia Bibi is a case in point. She was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 after being accused of defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed during an argument. A year before the conviction, Asia was involved in an argument with a group of women, who objected to a non Muslim touching a bowl of water. Asia was subsequently accused of insulting Prophet Mohammed, a charge she denies. She was sentenced to death by hanging, and has remained on death row since, with the Supreme Court now ruling that she was “free to go.”

In its ruling, the Supreme Court quoted Shakespeare's "King Lear" saying that Asia Bibi appeared to have been "more sinned against than sinning." "Even if there was some grain of truth in the allegations leveled in this case against the appellant still the glaring contradictions in the evidence of the prosecution highlighted above clearly show that the truth in this case had been mixed with a lot which was untrue.”

The court’s ruling was welcomed globally, with Amnesty International calling it “an important victory for religious tolerance in Pakistan.” “Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are overbroad, vague and coercive. They have been used to target religious minorities, pursue personal vendettas, and justify vigilante violence. On the basis of little or no evidence, the accused will struggle to establish their innocence while angry and violent mobs seek to intimidate the police, witnesses, prosecutors, lawyers and judges,” Amnesty’s statement concludes.

The protests that have accompanied the court’s verdict are indicative of the political significance of the blasphemy law, with religious groups and movements rallying support around the issue of blasphemy. In fact, Imran Khan too found himself defending the blasphemy law while campaigning for the general elections that he eventually won. “We are standing with Article 295c and will defend it,” Khan had said, referring to the clause of the constitution that mandates the death penalty for any “imputation, insinuation or innuendo” against the Prophet Muhammad.

Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), also hit out at the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), by resurfacing a controversy on the latter’s hastily withdrawn edits to an electoral oath taken by incoming politicians, that includes swearing on the finality of the Prophet Muhammad. Islamists said that the watered down oath relaxes strictures on the Ahmaddiyas, a widely persecuted sect in Pakistan for their belief that another Prophet may have followed Prophet Muhammad.

Few politicians have dared to speak out against the blasphemy law, with the last to do so -- Salmaan Taseer -- being assassinated in 2011. Taseer was a vocal critic of the law, and had spoken out in defence of Asia Bibi. He was killed by his guard. A new political party was formed in honour of his killer Mumtaz Qadri; the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) has since made significant headway in Pakistan’s electoral landscape.

Also in 2011, Pakistan’s Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down after he campaigned for changes to the law - specifically the provision that judges be required to investigate incidents of blasphemy before registering cases and a measure for punishment for false accusations. In July 2013, two brothers who were charged with defaming the Prophet were shot dead as they stepped out of a courtroom.

The politicisation of the blasphemy laws, which relate to Section XV Articles 295-298 of the Pakistan Penal Code, are indicative of the growing intolerance and religious radicalisation in Pakistan. Although the Pakistan Penal Code always had a provision to safeguard against blasphemy, it was only in the 1980s that Islam was singled out receiving specific articles. In 1982, under General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, the death penalty and life imprisonment were added as punishments relating to the law. The laws themselves are quite expansive. They prohibit expression that is intended to wound “religious feelings,” and deliberate or malicious acts intended to “outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs;” the laws specifically, through the provisions added in the 1980s, prohibit defiling the Quran and insulting the Prophet Muhammad, his wives, family or companions. The “misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles” is also prohibited. Following the 1982 amendment that introduced the death penalty and life imprisonment, an amendment in 1992 made the death penalty mandatory for individuals convicted of making derogatory remarks about the Prophet. Since then, successive governments have failed to introduce measures to change the law, succumbing to pressures by extremists and clerics.

Imran Khan’s strong condemnation of the protests accompanying Asia Bibi’s acquittal has added significance given the political context. At the time of writing, an emergency federal cabinet meeting was convened by Khan, with sources saying that the protests were on the top of the meeting agenda.