Fri, Nov 09, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Pakistani Christian at center of blasphemy row freed

AFP, ISLAMABAD

Protesters burn a poster of Christian woman Aasia Bibi on Thursday last week in Hyderabad, Pakistan.

Photo: AP

A Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row for blasphemy has been freed from jail after an acquittal that triggered protests, but is still in Pakistan, officials said yesterday amid appeals for her to be offered asylum.

Aasia Bibi’s conviction on Wednesday last week was overturned by the nation’s highest court, but she remained in prison as the government negotiated with hardliners who blockaded major cities and demanded her immediate execution.

Muslim parties had already vowed to take to the streets of Karachi later yesterday to protest her acquittal and numbers were expected to swell sharply following news of her release.

“She has been freed,” lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook said in a text message. “I have been told that she is on a plane, but nobody knows where she will land.”

Following protests at last week’s ruling, the government agreed to impose a travel ban on Bibi and not to challenge an appeal in the Pakistani Supreme Court.

Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Mohammed Faisal yesterday denied media reports that she had left the country.

Intelligence sources also said that she had not left the country.

An order for her release arrived on Wednesday at the jail in the central city of Multan where she was held, a prison official said.

“Asia Bibi has left the prison and has been transferred to a safe place!” European Parliament President Antonio Tajani said on Twitter.

Another civil aviation official in Multan said a small plane arrived in the city with “a few foreigners and some Pakistanis” on board to fetch Bibi.

Her case has underscored deep divisions between traditionalists and modernizers in the devoutly Muslim country.

The conviction stemmed from a 2009 incident when Bibi was asked to fetch water while out working in the fields.

Muslim women laborers objected to her touching the water bowl as a non-Muslim and a fight reportedly erupted.

A local imam then said that Bibi had insulted the Prophet Mohammed.

Bibi has consistently denied the charges and her prosecution rallied international rights groups, politicians and religious figures.

Pope Benedict XVI called for her release in 2010, while his successor, Pope Francis, met her daughter in 2015.

Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, has appealed for Britain or the US to grant the family asylum and several governments, including those if Italy and France, have offered to help.

Her lawyer fled to the Netherlands on Saturday last week under threat to his life.

“I will do everything humanly possible to guarantee this young woman’s future,” Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini said on Twitter.

Blasphemy is an incendiary charge in Pakistan, where even unsubstantiated allegations of insulting Islam can result in death at the hands of mobs.

Mere calls to reform the law have provoked violence, most notably the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province, by his own bodyguard in Islamabad in 2011.

Taseer had called for Bibi’s release and his son Shahbaz tweeted “Pakistan Zindabad” (“Long live Pakistan”) following last week’s ruling.

Thousands of Islamic hardliners poured onto the streets in protest after last week’s ruling.

Demonstrations broke out in major cities across the country, with club-wielding protesters blocking Islamabad’s main highway and barricading roads in Karachi and Lahore.

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