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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Asia Bibi flown to a secure hiding place in Pakistan after leaving jail

Christian woman is completely secure: Pakistan foreign ministry

Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman, listens to officials at a prison in Sheikhupura near Lahore, Pakistan. AP
Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman, listens to officials at a prison in Sheikhupura near Lahore, Pakistan. AP

A Christian woman who spent eight years on death row before her blasphemy conviction was quashed has finally left jail and been flown to a secure hiding place in Pakistan.

Asia Bibi was taken from her cell in Punjab province and flown to an airport outside the capital, Islamabad, sparking speculation the mother-of-five was immediately en route to claim asylum in Europe.

But by Thursday night her location remained unknown, with Imran Khan's government insisting she remained inside the country.

The secret transfer of the 53-year-old Catholic farmworker immediately angered hardliners who had managed to bring the country to a halt last week in protest at a supreme court decision to free her.

Pakistan again braced for protests as one prominent religious party said the release broke an agreement to end last week's disruption.

International Christian groups who have been campaigning for her release since she was sentenced to death eight years ago for allegedly defaming the Prophet Mohammed said her life was still under threat.

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Read more:

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Officials said Ms Bibi had been transferred from prison in Multan and pointed out a review of the Supreme Court decision to free her was pending.

"Asia Bibi is completely secure at a safe place in Pakistan," foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal told Reuters.

"Her writ is in court, when that is decided, Asia Bibi can go anywhere she wants to, she is a free national ... if she wants to go abroad, no harm in it."

Blasphemy is an incendiary charge in Pakistan. A conviction can carry the death sentence, but accusations can also be settled by murderous mobs long before they reach court.

While her conviction has been overturned, Ms Bibi and her family have said they cannot remain in Pakistan where extremists continue to call for her death.

Last week Ms Bibi's husband pleaded for asylum from Theresa May, President Donald Trump and the Canadian government.

A UK charity, British Pakistani Christian Association, said it was in touch with the family and all were still at risk in Pakistan.

A statement said Ms Bibi had shown “incredible fortitude” and “the entire Christian community is both proud of her, relieved that she is now free, and advocating for her to be able to leave and given asylum in a foreign country”.

Her supporters in Europe also praised the development.

"Asia Bibi has left the prison and has been transferred to a safe place!” said Atonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament. “I thank the Pakistani authorities. I look forward meeting her and her family, in the European Parliament as soon as possible.”

Supporters of the Pakistani religious Islamist group Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) gather during a protest rally against the release of Asia Bibi. AFP
Supporters of the Pakistani religious Islamist group Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) gather during a protest rally against the release of Asia Bibi. AFP

Yet diplomatic sources said the move may not mean she will leave the country imminently. It is unclear if she has been issued a passport and Mr Khan's government faces having to placate powerful religious leaders who have been campaigning for her to hang.

These hardliners mobilised supporters to paralyse the country last week, blocking major roads and highways and causing schools, offices and businesses to close. The disruption continued until a deal was reached that they could petition the supreme court to try to overturn Ms Bibi's acquittal. The government also said it would begin proceedings to put her on a no-fly list.

The hard-line Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) party said her release breached the deal.

"The TLP activists are agitated as the government has breached the agreement with our party. The rulers have showed their dishonesty," said spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi.

Ms Bibi's conviction caused outcry among Christians worldwide and attracted the attention of Pope Francis.

Her case has also divided Pakistan and focused attention on the country's harsh blasphemy laws, which are accused of being used as a tool to suppress religious minorities.

Two senior politicians who tried to help Ms Bibi or called for reform of the law in the wake of her conviction were shot dead. Last week's protests were accompanied by calls for the deaths of the judges who freed Mrs Bibi and for the overthrow of Mr Khan's administration.

On Thursday, thousands marched in the port of Karachi to protest her acquittal and call for her beheading.

"We can sacrifice our lives but can never compromise on the honour of the prophet," said one speaker.

Ms Bibi's plight began when she was picking berries with other farmworkers in a Punjab field in 2009. She was asked to fetch water and two Muslim women complained, saying they would not drink from a vessel touched by a Christian. A quarrel ensued and the women later alleged to a village mullah that Ms Bibi had insulted the Prophet. She always denied blasphemy and said she had been falsely accused to settle a score.