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Asia Bibi leaves Pakistan 'for Canada'

Haroon Janjua Islamabad
May 8, 2019

Christian Asia Bibi who spent years on death row in Pakistan on a blasphemy charge, has moved to Canada to join her family, according to her lawyer. Bibi and her family had to stay in hiding even after she was released.

A sign reading 'Free Asia Bibi' on display at a Paris protest. Archive photo from 2014.
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Bureau

Asia Bibi has been reunited with her family, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday.

"The United States welcomes the news that Asia Bibi has safely reunited with her family," Pompeo said in a statement. "Asia Bibi is now free, and we wish her and her family all the best following their reunification."

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declined to confirm whether she has arrived in Canada.
"There are sensitive privacy issues and security issues on this and so I can't comment," Trudeau told reporters outside parliament.

However, UK Prime Minister Theresa May appeared to confirm she had gone to Canada: "Canada made this offer and we thought it was right and appropriate that we supported the offer that Canada had made," May said.

Leaving in secret

A family member told DW that Bibi's daughters were waiting for her in the Canadian city of Calgary and that "Canadian authorities will keep the family under tight security and Bibi will not interact with media."

The family told DW late on Tuesday, before the flight, that they had been asked to prepare to leave in secret.

Bibi's departure was delayed for six months after her acquittal, reportedly due to extreme pressure from the deep state not to speak out. Bibi was not allowed to complete paperwork to finalize her asylum in the West. Diplomatic and government sources in Islamabad confirmed the move to DW.

After the Supreme Court order to release Bibi, the 53-year-old mother-of-five was shifted to the southern port city of Karachi last November. There, she was put into protective custody, as she was constantly facing death threats from Islamist hardliners. Bibi's lawyer Saif ul Malook left the country in November last year, also after receiving death threats.

"We are happy that she fled the country after long delays and got justice. We were concerned about her safety but were not allowed to meet her or even speak with her over the phone to complete the paperwork," one diplomat told DW.

Read more:  Asia Bibi: Still a 'prisoner' in Pakistan?

Protests before and after acquittal

Bibi's case attracted international attention, with many Western countries rejecting both capital punishment and the concept that blasphemy — the perceived insult of a deity or religion — is a crime. However, it also prompted major protests in Pakistan as people called for her execution.

Following the Supreme Court verdict of Bibi's acquittal, the ultra-violent Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) party took to the streets, bringing Pakistan to a standstill for three days. Eventually, TLP entered into a written pact with the government to not oppose the Supreme Court's decision to reverse the verdict against Bibi, on condition that Islamabad put her on the country's Exit Control List (ECL). The ECL is a list of people forbidden to leave Pakistan. The deal drew strong criticism from human rights activists. 

But her exit from Pakistan now has been welcomed by rights groups. "It is a great relief that this shameful ordeal has finally come to an end and Asia Bibi and her family are safe. She should never have been imprisoned in the first place, let alone endure the constant threats to her life. This case horrifyingly illustrates the dangers of Pakistan's blasphemy laws and the urgent need to repeal them," Omar Waraich, Deputy South Asia Director, Amnesty International told DW.

Read more:  Asia Bibi: Pakistani court upholds acquittal decision

Islamist activists carry placards against Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was recently released after spending eight years on death row for blasphemy, during a rally coinciding with Eid Milad-un-Nabi, which marks the birth anniversary of Prophet Muhammad, in Karachi on November 21, 2018.
Pakistan was brought to a standstill late in 2018 by protests against Bibi's acquittalImage: AFP/Getty Images/A. Hassan

Bibi, a poor laborer from the central Punjab and a mother-of-five, was sentenced to death in 2010. She was charged with blasphemy, accused of making derogatory remarks against Islam's Prophet Mohammed. 

Her ordeal became emblematic for the problems faced by the country's tiny Christian minority, comprising only 2.6% of the population of 208 million. 

Pakistan's blasphemy law dates back to British colonial rule.

Pakistan under pressure to repeal blasphemy laws

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