Protests in Pakistan delay release of Christian woman

By Munir Ahmed and Asim Tanveer, Associated Press

Protests by radical Islamists have apparently delayed the release of a Christian woman in Pakistan who was acquitted eight years after being sentenced to death for blasphemy.

Islamists who want Asia Bibi publicly hanged held rallies across Pakistan on Friday to denounce Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling that overturned her 2010 conviction for insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Her family have always maintained her innocence and say she never insulted Islam’s prophet.

Asia Bibi (AP)

Since the landmark ruling, radical Islamists have blocked major roads and damaged or set fire to dozens of vehicles to pressure the government to stop Ms Bibi’s release from an undisclosed detention facility.

On Friday, 5,000 Islamists rallied in the capital Islamabad and nearly 4,000 staged a sit-in in Lahore, demanding that the verdict be overturned. Similar rallies were also held in the north-western city of Peshawar.

More than 2,000 demonstrators blocked a key road linking Islamabad with the garrison city of Rawalpindi, causing traffic jams. Hundreds also blocked another key motorway connecting Islamabad with other major cities. No violence was reported during the rallies.

Protesters block a main road in Islamabad (BK Bangash/AP)

On Thursday, a lawyer representing a local cleric who had raised the initial blasphemy charges against Ms Bibi petitioned the Supreme Court to reverse its acquittal.

Pakistan shut down schools and colleges after cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik party, announced that “talks” between his deputies and the government about Ms Bibi’s fate had failed.

Before dawn on Friday, Mr Rizvi told an emotionally charged rally in the eastern city of Lahore that one of the government negotiators threatened his deputies during the talks that security forces would kill them if they did not disperse peacefully.

He asked his supporters to continue sit-ins as authorities summoned paramilitary troops to restore order.

“We are ready to die to show our love for the prophet,” he said.

Mr Rizvi’s envoys had demanded that Ms Bibi be barred from leaving the country but information minister Fawad Chaudhry rejected the demand, saying the government will not accept any demands.

Pakistan Christians pray for Asia Bibi (Irum Asim/AP)

Ghulam Mustafa, a lawyer representing a provincial cleric in Punjab who filed the initial blasphemy charges, petitioned the Supreme Court, requesting the judges review her acquittal.

The court has set no dates to take up the petition, but Ms Bibi’s release could be further delayed by the process. Pakistan’s Supreme Court has not been known to reverse decisions but court reviews typically take years.

Interior minister Sheharyar Afridi said officials were trying to persuade Islamists to disperse the rallies peacefully.

Authorities also stepped up security near an undisclosed detention facility where Ms Bibi is being held for her safety. On Thursday, prison officials said two inmates were arrested last month for planning to kill Ms Bibi by strangling her. They said the men were still being questioned.

Bibi’s family had expected her release by Thursday night. Her husband Ashiq Masih returned from Britain with their children in mid-October and was waiting for her release so they can fly out of Pakistan.

The family has not disclosed the country of her destination but France and Spain have offered asylum.