Asia Bibi 'safely reunited' with family, likely in Canada

ISLAMABAD: Asia Bibi, the Christian woman at the center of a decade-long blasphemy row, is "free" and has been reunited with her family, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday, months after her death sentence was overturned. Pompeo issued a statement after a government source in Pakistan told AFP earlier yesterday that Bibi had left the country "of her own free will" - the latest chapter in a saga that has sparked violent demonstrations and high-profile assassinations while spotlighting religious extremism.

"The United States welcomes the news that Asia Bibi has safely reunited with her family," Pompeo said in a statement. "Asia Bibi is now free, and we wish her and her family all the best following their reunification." It was not clear when Bibi may have left or where she may have gone, though British Prime Minister Theresa May appeared to confirm that Canada was her destination while speaking on the floor of the House of Commons yesterday. "Canada made this offer and we thought it was right and appropriate that we supported the offer that Canada had made," May said.

Canada's foreign ministry said it had no comment on the matter. The Pakistani government source spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity and did not confirm Bibi's destination, and there was no official announcement from Islamabad. Blasphemy carries a maximum death penalty under Pakistan's penal code. It is an incendiary issue in the Muslim-majority country, and mere allegations of insulting Islam have sparked lynchings and vigilante violence in the past.

"It is a great relief that this shameful ordeal has finally come to an end and Asia Bibi and her family are safe," said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director at Amnesty International. "She should never have been imprisoned in the first place, let alone endure the constant threats to her life. This case horrifyingly illustrates the dangers of Pakistan's blasphemy laws and the urgent need to repeal them."

LAHORE: In this file photo taken on Feb 1, 2019 Pakistani Islamists hold a poster displaying an image of Asia Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman accused of blasphemy, with a noose and a knife, during a protest against the Supreme Court decision on Bibi’s case.— AFP

Violent protests
Bibi - a laborer from central Punjab province - was first convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and was on death row until her acquittal last year. Her case swiftly became the most infamous in Pakistan, drawing worldwide attention to extremism in the country. She has technically been free to leave Pakistan since January when the Supreme Court dismissed a legal challenge to her acquittal in October. Since then, Bibi has been widely believed to have been held in protective custody by authorities as she awaited an asylum deal in a third country.

In November Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa was holding talks with Pakistan about bringing her to Canada, which he said is "a welcoming country". Bibi's lawyer Saif ul Mulook and multiple security sources in Pakistan also told AFP on condition of anonymity that Bibi had gone to Canada. Many blasphemy cases in Pakistan see Muslims accusing Muslims, but rights activists have warned that religious minorities - particularly Christians - are often caught in the crossfire, with such accusations used to settle personal scores.

Two politicians have been assassinated in connection with Bibi's case, and she spent much of her time in prison in solitary confinement because of fears she could be attacked by a guard or another prisoner. Islamist groups have regularly called for her to be executed, and activists have warned that she would not be safe in Pakistan. Following Bibi's acquittal in October the country was gripped for days by violent protests led by the hardline group Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), which also called for mutiny in the armed forces and assassination of the country's top judges for acquitting her.

In the wake of the nationwide protests, TLP's leaders - who paralyzed the capital Islamabad for weeks in 2017 with an anti-blasphemy sit-in - were rounded up in a government crackdown months ago and remain in detention. Christians - who make up around two percent of the population - occupy one of the lowest rungs in class-obsessed Pakistani society, largely living in slums and working menial jobs as street sweepers, cleaners and cooks. - AFP