Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy freed in Pakistan

By Kathy Gannon, Associated Press

A Christian woman acquitted after eight years on death row for blasphemy has been released but her whereabouts in Islamabad remain secret after demands by radical Islamists that she be publicly executed.

Asia Bibi was with her family and under heavy security after being transferred to the Pakistani capital overnight from a detention facility in southern Punjab.

The European Parliament has made an offer to protect her family. For the moment she is still in Pakistan, according to two people who are close to her.

Ms Bibi left the Punjab facility amid tight security late on Wednesday and was flown to Islamabad. Troops guarded the roads leading to the airport from which she departed, Pakistani officials said.

Protests against Asia Bibi’s acquittal in Karachi (Fareed Khan)

Information minister Fawad Chaudhry confirmed later on Thursday that Ms Bibi was still in Pakistan.

Radical Islamists have been demanding her death as well as the death of the three Supreme Court judges who acquitted her last week.

Following her acquittal, the hardline Tehreek-e-Labbaik Party forced a country-wide shut down as their supporters took to the streets for three days to protest against her release.

Scores of protesters were arrested for damaging vehicles and property during the rallies, and bank accounts of some of the leaders of the party were reportedly frozen.

The rallies only dispersed after prime minister Imran Khan’s government promised a court would review a motion to challenge the acquittal and deny Ms Bibi permission to leave Pakistan.

Imran Khan (Aly Song/AP)

Critics immediately accused Mr Khan, who came to power after elections last summer riding in part on an Islamist agenda, of capitulating to the radicals.

Ms Bibi’s acquittal initially seemed to bring an end to her ordeal, which began on a blistering hot day in 2009 when the 54-year-old mother of five, a farm worker, went to fetch water. An argument took place after two fellow farm workers refused to drink from the same container as a Christian.

Nearly a week later, the two women said Ms Bibi had insulted the Prophet Muhammad and she was charged with blasphemy — a controversial issue in Pakistan, where mere accusations of blasphemy can cause riots. The charge carries the death penalty and Ms Bibi was sentenced to death in 2010.

Her case garnered worldwide attention and brought sharp criticism of Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

European Parliament president Antonio Tajani has invited Ms Bibi and her family to Europe. In a letter, he told her husband Ashiq Masih that the European Parliament is “extremely concerned for your safety as well as your family’s, due to the violence by extremist elements in Pakistan”.

Mr Masih appealed on Sunday to President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Theresa May to help the family leave Pakistan.

Mr Tajani’s letter was an indication that Ms Bibi and her family may be leaving for Europe imminently, although their destination has not been confirmed. Earlier, Spain and France had offered her asylum.

Last month, while she was still in custody, Pakistani authorities said they arrested two prisoners for allegedly conspiring to strangle her and additional police and troops were deployed to the facility in Punjab.