Devout Christian woman facing death penalty spirited out of Pakistan

Asia Bibi, a Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy, has departed Pakistan after spending eight years on death row.

By World Israel News Staff and AP

A Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy after spending eight years on death row in Pakistan has left for Canada to be reunited with her daughters, Pakistani officials and others involved in the case said Wednesday.

Asia Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2009 following a quarrel at work. Mrs. Bibi had been working as a farmhand to help support her family in a tiny village in the Sheikhupura district of Punjab. Her family were the only Christians in the village. After the quarrel, she was accused of blasphemy.

The Supreme Court overturned her conviction last year, and she had been in protective custody since then.

A source told The Daily Mail: ‘After being released from death row, she thought she was finally free. But she found she was being hunted by extremists. For the last few months she has been living in fear for her life.”

“Canada’s Prime Minister has been incredibly helpful. When no other country was coming to her aid, he offered her and her family refuge,” the source told the paper. However, while her daughters were allowed to go, she was held back due to objections by Pakistan’s military, which is “heavily influenced by Taliban elements,” the paper reveals.

Islamic extremists have rioted over the case and threatened to kill her. The same radical Islamists, many of whom have been jailed for their threats, also urged the overthrow of the government following Mrs. Bibi’s acquittal.

According to The Daily Mail, an international team from the United States and Canada spirited her out of the country. They had been in a “race against time” before Islamic clerics incited to more violence.

Mrs. Bibi left together with her husband, Ashiq Masih.

Wilson Chawdhry of the British Pakistani Christian Association told the Associated Press that he received a text message from a British diplomat saying “Asia is out.”

A close friend of Bibi also confirmed that she had left the country, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. Her lawyer, Saif-ul Malook, said she had already arrived in Canada.

The case has brought international attention to Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law, which carries an automatic death penalty. The mere suspicion of blasphemy against Islam is enough to ignite mob lynchings in the country. The accusation of blasphemy has also been used to intimidate religious minorities and to settle scores.

Radical Islamists have made the punishment of blasphemy a major rallying cry, bringing tens of thousands into the streets and paralyzing major cities.

Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was shot and killed by one of his guards in 2011 for defending Mrs. Bibi and criticizing the misuse of the blasphemy law. The assassin, 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 demanding justice for Mrs. Bibi.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has vowed not to be intimidated by the rioters, saying the rule of law would decide Mrs. Bibi’s fate. But she was denied permission to leave the country for several months until sentiments cooled.

The friend, who last spoke to her on Tuesday, said Bibi and her husband Ashiq Masih had spent the last several weeks getting their documents in order. He said she was longing to see her daughters, with whom she talked almost daily from her secure location, protected by Pakistani security forces.

Mr. Chawdhry said he had been in regular contact with Bibi’s husband throughout the ordeal as well as with several diplomats involved in international efforts to free her and get her to safety.

A three-judge Supreme Court panel in January cleared Bibi’s final legal hurdle when they ruled there was no compelling reason to overturn the court’s earlier acquittal. The judges accused those who charged Mrs. Bibi with blasphemy of committing perjury, but said they would not be tried because of the sensitivity of the case. The judges upheld the blasphemy law.