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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 November 2018

Protesters chant slogans against the acquittal of Christian woman Asia Bibi of blasphemy, in Karachi on November 1, 2018. AFP

Woman acquitted of blasphemy to leave Pakistan

A Christian woman acquitted in Pakistan after eight years on death row for blasphemy plans to leave the country, her family said on Thursday as radical Islamists staged rallies for a second day against the verdict, blocking roads and burning tyres.

The protests follow the Supreme Court's landmark ruling on Wednesday to overturn the 2010 conviction against Asia Bibi for insulting the Prophet Mohammed. The charge of blasphemy carries the death penalty in Pakistan.

Ms Bibi's acquittal immediately raised fears of religious violence — and presented a challenge to the government of new Prime Minister Imran Khan who came to power this summer partly by pursuing the Islamist agenda. Mr Khan warned Islamist protesters on Wednesday night not to "test the patience of the state".

Ms Bibi, a mother of five, remained at an undisclosed location on Thursday for security reasons, awaiting her formal release, her brother, James Masih said.

Mr Masih said his sister simply would not be safe in Pakistan.

"She has no other option and she will leave the country soon," he said.

He would not disclose the country of her destination but both France and Spain have offered asylum.

Ms Bibi's husband, Ashiq Masih, had returned from Britain with their children in mid-October and was waiting for her to join them, the brother added.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 Islamists blocked a key road linking the capital, Islamabad with the garrison city of Rawalpindi on Thursday, demanding Ms Bibi be publicly hanged. Authorities deployed paramilitary troops, signalling they could move in to clear the roads.

Hundreds also blocked another key motorway, linking Islamabad with major cities such as Lahore and Peshawar, chanting slogans against Ms Bibi and demanding her execution.

Protesters chant slogans against the acquittal of Christian woman Asia Bibi of blasphemy, in Karachi on November 1, 2018. AFP
Protesters chant slogans against the acquittal of Christian woman Asia Bibi of blasphemy, in Karachi on November 1, 2018. AFP

Meanwhile, opposition lawmakers in parliament called on Thursday for reforming the judicial system and Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law so that innocents like Ms Bibi would not spent years languishing in jail.

Hafiz Saeed, a radical cleric wanted by the United States, urged followers to hold rallies across Pakistan on Friday to condemn Ms Bibi's release. Saeed is the founder of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba group, which was blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people.

Protesters, rallied by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, also set up roadblocks and burned tyres in the southern port city of Karachi while hundreds clashed with police in various parts of eastern Punjab province on Thursday.

Many parents kept their children from school, fearing more violence.

The protesters also called for the killing of the three judges, including Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, who acquitted Ms Bibi.

The three are on the hit list of Mr Rizvi's Tehreek-e-Labbaik party, which has demanded a public execution for Ms Bibi. Mr Rizvi has managed to turn out tens of thousands of supporters in the past, often forcing authorities to bow to his demands on religious matters.

Tehreek-e-Labbaik claimed on Thursday that two of its supporters were killed by police fire during overnight clashes in Karachi. No government official could immediately confirm any casualties.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi, head of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan hardline religious political party, leads a sit-in protest in Lahore on November 1, 2018. AFP
Khadim Hussain Rizvi, head of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan hardline religious political party, leads a sit-in protest in Lahore on November 1, 2018. AFP

In his televised speech, Prime Minister Khan warned the Islamists: "Let me make it very clear to you that the state will fulfil its responsibility."

Ms Bibi's lawyer, Saiful Malook, has gone into hiding as the extremists had threatened his life as well.

On Wednesday, cleric Afzal Qadri, with Mr Rizvi by his side, urged a crowd of supporters outside the Punjab provincial parliament in the city of Lahore to revolt against army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and overthrow Mr Khan's government.

Ms Bibi's acquittal, however, has been seen as a hopeful sign by Christians in Pakistan, where the mere rumour of blasphemy can spark lynchings. Religious minorities, who have been repeatedly targeted by extremists, fear the law because it is often used to settle scores and to pressure minorities.

In 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was shot and killed by one of his guards for defending Ms Bibi and criticising the misuse of the blasphemy law. The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was hanged for the crime, but later was hailed by religious hardliners as a martyr, with millions visiting a shrine set up for him near Islamabad.

Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's minister for minorities was also killed in 2011 after he demanded justice for Ms Bibi.

Ms Bibi was arrested in 2009 after she was accused of blasphemy following a quarrel with two fellow female farm workers who refused to drink from a water container used by a Christian. A few days later, a mob accused her of insulting Islam's Prophet, leading to her 2010 conviction.

Ms Bibi's family has always maintained her innocence and says she never insulted the Prophet.

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