Asia Bibi still in Pakistan, but free to go abroad: Foreign office

Islamabad, PakistanUpdated: Jan 31, 2019, 05:10 PM IST
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File photo of Asia Bibi with the Pakistani politician Salman Taseer. Photograph:(Reuters)

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Bibi, a labourer from central Punjab province, was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and was on death row until her acquittal last year.

Asia Bibi, the Christian woman whose acquittal was upheld this week in a blasphemy saga which has made her a prime target for vigilantes, is still in Pakistan, the foreign ministry said Thursday.

As Islamist extremists announced fresh protests demanding her execution, officials said she was free to go abroad, with speculation rampant that she will seek asylum in Europe or North America. 

Bibi, a labourer from central Punjab province, was 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 religious extremism in the country where blasphemy is an incendiary issue.

Since her acquittal, she has been in protective custody, with authorities refusing to reveal her whereabouts out of fear for her safety. 

On Tuesday the Supreme Court cleared the final legal hurdle in her case, throwing out a petition seeking an appeal against her acquittal.

The decision spurred calls for protests from extremists who have demanded Bibi's hanging and set the stage for her to leave the country. Her daughters are believed to have already fled to Canada.

"To the best of my knowledge, Asia Bibi is still in Pakistan," foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal told reporters in Islamabad during a weekly press briefing.

"She is a free citizen. If she wants to live in Pakistan, she can live in Pakistan. If she wants to go abroad she can go. This is her wish and there is no restriction on her," he continued. 

Even unproven accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan have caused lynchings and murders. 

Two politicians have been assassinated in connection with Bibi's case, and she spent much of her time in prison in solitary confinement for fear she could be attacked by a guard or another prisoner. 

Islamists groups regularly call for her hanging, and her acquittal last October sparked days of violent demonstrations.

Activists have warned that her life is in danger if she remains in Pakistan. 

Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), the Islamist group which led protests after Bibi's acquittal, has called for nationwide protests demanding Bibi's execution on Friday.

The group also called protests for Wednesday, after the Supreme Court's decision was announced, but small rallies in some cities fizzled out amid a heavy police presence. 

TLP's leaders — who paralysed the capital Islamabad for weeks in 2017 with an anti-blasphemy sit-in — were rounded up in a government crackdown weeks ago and remain in detention. 

Many blasphemy cases in Pakistan see Muslims accusing Muslims, and rights activists say charges under the colonial-era legislation are frequently used to settle personal scores. 

Minorities — particularly Christians —are often caught in the crossfire, while mere calls to reform the laws have also provoked violence.