Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 June 2019

Asia Bibi: Pakistani Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy arrives in Canada

Her acquittal in October prompted protest by Pakistani hardliners

 In this file photo taken on February 1, 2019 Pakistani Islamists hold a poster of Asia Bibi during a protest against her acquittal. AFP
 In this file photo taken on February 1, 2019 Pakistani Islamists hold a poster of Asia Bibi during a protest against her acquittal. AFP

A Pakistani Christian woman wrongly sentenced to death for blasphemy has flown to Canada, ending a decade-long judicial ordeal which became a flashpoint for religious extremism in Pakistan.

Asia Bibi arrived in Ottawa to start a new life with her daughters after quietly leaving Pakistan earlier this week, her lawyer said.

The flight concluded months of efforts by diplomats to free the mother-of-five who had been held in protective custody in a Pakistani government safe house despite being acquitted seven months ago.

“She has left Pakistan and is in Canada, that's confirmed,” her lawyer Saif-ul-Malook said.

Jeremy Hunt, the British Foreign Secretary, called the release “fantastic news”.

Antonio Tajani, the European Parliament president, said the journey meant “Asia Bibi's nightmare is over”.

“Thanks to the Canadian authorities for welcoming her and giving her the opportunity to start a new life. We must defend Christians around the world persecuted merely for practising their faith.”

The sensitivity of the case, which galvanised religious extremists across Pakistan, had seen Islamabad drag its feet over her release as it tried to avert unrest from hard liners.

The government is also thought to have sought assurances that the 54-year-old would not be critical of Pakistan once free, as the nation tries to shed its image as a hotbed of violent religious radicalism.

Mrs Bibi has been trapped in limbo since her case was quashed in October. While technically freed, Islamabad kept her in protective custody and refused to let her seek asylum in the West. Sources familiar with her case said she had been kept largely in a single room and suffered from depression in recent months, fearing she would never be released.

After she was sentenced in 2010 to hang after being wrongly accused of defaming the Prophet Mohammed, her plight was taken up by Christian groups around the world and even the Pope.

As her detention dragged on, diplomats from the European Union among others have sought to intercede in recent weeks.

Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, said he had been in daily contact with Mrs Bibi’s husband, Ashiq.

“Ashiq has always remained hopeful of an imminent release from Pakistan and we have both been shocked at how long it has taken.

“Asia Bibi and Ashiq have remained resolute in their faith and have prayed daily for their release and today God has answered their prayers.”

Sources at Pakistan's ministry of foreign affairs said she was “a free person and travelled on her independent will”.

However the timing and choreography of her release are understood to have been the subject of intense negotiation and planning for months.

Her case exposed deep fault lines in Pakistani society. The illiterate farmhand was first accused of blasphemy by two Muslim fellow workers after they argued while picking falsa berries in a field outside their Punjab village in June 2009. When the two Muslim women refused to drink from a container Mrs Bibi had touched, the three quarrelled. The Muslim women alleged Mrs Bibi had insulted the Prophet during the row and she was hauled before the village to answer for herself. The villagers say she confessed and she was then convicted in court and sentenced to death. But Mrs Bibi denied the accusation and said the confession had been beaten out of her by a mob.

Her case caused international outcry and highlighted Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws, which campaigners say are used to suppress religious minorities. But demands for her execution also became a rallying cry for the country's religious extremists. Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was assassinated by his own bodyguard in 2011 for defending Mrs Bibi and criticising misuse of the blasphemy law. His killer, Mumtaz Qadri, has been celebrated as a martyr by hard-liners since he was hanged for the killing, with millions visiting a shrine set up for him near Islamabad. Pakistan's minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated later that year after also demanding justice for Mrs Bibi.

After years of delay, her case was quashed by the supreme court in October. The court dismissed the case against her, rejecting her confession and noting her accusers contradicted each other.

That decision was greeting with three days of protest that paralysed the country as members of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party blocked roads. The party had been founded to oppose blasphemy reform and had even been accused of receiving military backing to protest against the government of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Recent months have seen efforts to curb the TLP though, after one of its leaders overstepped the mark and called for troops to mutiny. Several of its leaders are now in jail.

Updated: May 8, 2019 04:37 PM

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