Blas­phemy law vic­tim re­leased

The Australian - - WORLD -

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

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

Is­lamist par­ties had al­ready vowed to take to the streets of Karachi last night to protest against her ac­quit­tal and num­bers were now 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 in a deal with Is­lamists to im­pose a travel ban on Ms Bibi, and not to chal­lenge an ap­peal in the Supreme Court.

For­eign Min­istry spokesman Muham­mad Faisal yes­ter­day de­nied me­dia re­ports that she had left the coun­try, say­ing: “She is in Pak­istan”.

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!” tweeted An­to­nio Ta­jani, pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment.

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

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

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

Mus­lim women labour­ers ob­jected to her touch­ing the wa­ter bowl as a non-Mus­lim, and a fight erupted. A lo­cal imam then claimed Ms Bibi in­sulted the prophet Mo­hammed. She has con­sis­tently de­nied the charges, and her pros­e­cu­tion ral­lied in­ter­na­tional rights groups, politi­cians and re­li­gious fig­ures.

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

Ms Bibi’s hus­band, Ashiq Masih, has ap­pealed for Bri­tain or the US to grant the fam­ily asy­lum and sev­eral gov­ern­ments in­clud­ing those of Italy and France have of­fered to help. Italy’s In­te­rior Min­is­ter Mat­teo Salvini tweeted: “I will do ev­ery­thing hu­manly pos­si­ble to guar­an­tee this young woman’s fu­ture.”

Her lawyer fled to The Nether­lands on Satur­day un­der threat to his life.

Blas­phemy is an in­cen­di­ary charge in Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity 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, 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 Is­lamist hard­lin­ers poured onto the streets in protest af­ter Supreme Court judges over­turned Ms Bibi’s con­vic­tion last Wed­nes­day.

Demon­stra­tions broke out in ma­jor cities across the coun­try in the wake of the rul­ing, with club­wield­ing pro­test­ers block­ing Is­lam­abad’s main high­way and bar­ri­cad­ing roads in Karachi and La­hore.

One of the most vo­cal groups in the protests — the Tehreek-eLabaik Pak­istan — called for “mutiny” against the army’s top brass and the as­sas­si­na­tion of the top court’s jus­tices.

In a state­ment, the TLP termed Ms Bibi’s re­lease “against the govern­ment agree­ment”.

“The en­tire at­mos­phere of Pak­istan is in pain and grief af­ter hear­ing the news about the blas­phe­mer of the holy prophet Asia,” it said.

One res­i­dent in Mul­tan, Rizwan Khan, said Ms Bibi would not be safe wher­ever she went, while an­other, Qari Muneer, said the de­ci­sion should be re­versed and called for her to re­ceive “strict pun­ish­ment”.


Pak­istani po­lice stand guard at the gates of the Mul­tan jail where Asia Bibi was held un­til yes­ter­day


Asia Bibi

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