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Where is Asia Bibi?

S. Khan Islamabad | Shamil Shams
April 5, 2019

Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who had spent almost a decade on death row over blasphemy allegations, was acquitted by Pakistan's top court in January. But Bibi is still not a free person, and her whereabouts are unknown.

Blasphemy protest in Pakistan
Image: picture-alliance/Pacific Press/R. Hussain

In January, Pakistan's highest court upheld its October 2018 ruling to acquit Asia Bibi , an impoverished Catholic woman, of blasphemy charges. Bibi, a mother of five, was arrested in June 2009, after her neighbors complained she had made derogatory remarks about Islam's Prophet Muhammad. A year later, Bibi was sentenced to death despite strong opposition from national and international human rights groups.

After the Supreme Court's ruling, Asia Bibi should have been a free person. She is not in jail, as there is no case against her. The blasphemy allegations against her have been proven wrong. Should she choose to leave the country for Canada, where her daughters are reportedly staying, she has every right to depart.

But it's been more than two months since Bibi's acquittal, and not many people in Pakistan know where she is. It's been reported that Bibi has been kept in "protective custody" in an unknown location.

Read more: Conflicting reports about Asia Bibi's whereabouts

After Bibi's acquittal in October 2018, Islamists took to the streets and brought Pakistan to a standstill through violent protests. Bibi may indeed need protection from them, but why does it appear that she is not allowed to leave the country?

Pakistan's human rights groups and activists say it is a worrying sign that Bibi is still a "prisoner," despite her legal victory.

Read more: The case of Asia Bibi in Pakistan

Bibi's life could be in danger

"Extremists could still harm Bibi," Obed Robert, a friend of Bibi's husband Ashiq Masih, told DW. Robert, who is a priest, had accompanied Bibi's husband to court hearings on several occasions.

"I think she is still in the country and has not left yet," Robert said, adding that it is not good for Bibi's safety.

Fears about Bibi's safety are echoed by other members of the Christian community as well. Shamoon Alfred Gill, vice-chairman of the Minorities Alliance Pakistan organization, says that as long as Bibi stays in Pakistan, her life remains in danger.

"We have requested our friends and civil society members to appeal to international organizations, as well as Pakistani authorities, to ensure Bibi's safe departure from the country," Gill told DW.

Blasphemy is a sensitive topic in Pakistan, where 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslim. Rights activists have demanded reforms of controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. Activists say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas.

Read more: Pakistan dangles between hope and despair over minority rights

According to rights groups, around 1,549 blasphemy cases have been registered in Pakistan between 1987 and 2017. More than 75 people have been killed extra-judicially on blasphemy allegations. Some of them were even targeted after being acquitted in blasphemy cases by courts.

Pakistan's Christians and other religious minorities have often complained of legal and social discrimination in their country. In the past few years, many Christians and Hindus have been brutally murdered over unproven blasphemy allegations.

In one case, a young Christian girl with Down Syndrome was accused in August 2012 of burning pages upon which verses of the Koran were inscribed. Rimsha Masih was taken into police custody and only released months later, when charges were dropped. The case caused an uproar in her hometown and beyond and sparked riots and violence against Christians in the region. In 2013, she and her family relocated to Canada.

In 2014, a Christian couple was beaten to death for allegedly desecrating a copy of the Koran. Their bodies were subsequently burned in a brick kiln.

In September last year, a Christian man in Pakistan was sentenced to death for sharing "blasphemous" material on WhatsApp.

Read more: Opinion: Pakistan owes Asia Bibi an apology

Pakistan's 'image' problem

Some Pakistanis are of the view that the government had secretly allowed Bibi to leave the country after her acquittal. These people say that the authorities do not want to reveal this for the fear of a backlash from Islamists. The Pakistani government's "silence" on this issue is fueling more speculation and "conspiracy theories."

"I do not know if Bibi has left the country or not," a government minister told DW on condition of anonymity.

Saiful Mulook, Bibi's lawyer, who had temporarily fled to the Netherlands after Bibi's acquittal, said he is also unaware of Bibi's whereabouts.

"I have not been in contact with her or her husband after the apex court released her, so I cannot say whether she is in the country or has already left. I cannot say anything on this issue because nobody contacted me or informed me about it," Mulook told DW.

Government agencies that keep records of passengers flying out of the country also told DW that Bibi's name is not on their list.

Shaan Taseer, the son of the former governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who was killed for supporting Bibi, says it is not Islamic clerics but "some other people" who do not want Bibi to leave Pakistan.

"I think the powers that be in Pakistan want to protect the image of Pakistan. They fear that Bibi would damage the country's image once she is out Pakistan. It is entirely unjustified," Taseer told DW.

Taseer described the delay in Bibi's departure as "outrageous."

"There is no justification for the government to deny her freedom. The government is overstepping its authority," Taseer said.

Read more: Pakistan blasphemy case: Asia Bibi's husband fears for wife's safety

Pakistanis welcome arrest of Asia Bibi protesters

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