ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (ANS) — Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who spent nearly a decade on death row for allegedly committing blasphemy, has finally been allowed to leave Pakistan.
This news, which has been confirmed by Bibi’s lawyer and other local media sources, comes more than six months after Bibi’s acquittal by the country’s Supreme Court, according to International Christian Concern (ICC).
“Asia Bibi has left the country,” a Foreign Office source told Dawn News TV on Wednesday. “She is a free person and travelled on her independent will.”
“I have inquired within available channels, and according to them she has left for Canada,” Saif-Ul-Malook, Bibi’s Supreme Court lawyer, told Reuters early Wednesday morning.
Bibi was accused of committing blasphemy in 2009 and remains the only woman in Pakistan’s history to be sentenced to death under the country’s notorious blasphemy laws. Bibi was on death row for more than eight years after her conviction and death sentence were announced by the Sessions Court in Sheikhupura in 2010.
The blasphemy accusation against Bibi was based on flimsy evidence following a dispute that took place in June 2009 between Bibi and a group of Muslim coworkers with whom she had been harvesting berries in Sheikhupura. The Muslim coworkers became angry with Bibi when she, a Christian whom they considered unclean, drank water from the same water bowl as the Muslims. An argument between Bibi and the Muslim coworkers ensued and the Muslim coworkers later reported to a local cleric that Bibi had blasphemed against the Prophet Muhammad.
On October 31, 2018, Pakistan’s Supreme Court announced Bibi’s acquittal of the blasphemy charges that had kept her on death row. In explaining its decision, the court said that there was ultimately not enough evidence to convict Bibi.
Following the announcement of the acquittal, thousands of religious hardliners in Pakistan took to the streets in protest. These protesters demanded that the court review its decision and prevent Bibi from leaving Pakistan until the review had taken place.
On January 29, 2019, Pakistan’s Supreme Court confirmed its decision to acquit Bibi. The decision to confirm the acquittal was announced by a three-judge bench led by Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa. In announcing the decision to uphold Bibi’s acquittal, Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa said, “Based on merit, this petition is dismissed.”
From her acquittal to her departure from Pakistan on Tuesday, Bibi remained in the protective custody of the Pakistani military at a secure location inside the country. According to those in contact with Bibi, her conditions at this secure location were eerily similar to prison. Friends of Bibi’s family explained that Bibi was not even able to open a window in her hideout.
ICC’s Regional Manager, William Stark, said, “We here at ICC are overjoyed to see that Asia has finally been set free. Since her acquittal was upheld in January, we have been waiting for the announcement that she has been allowed to leave Pakistan and reunited with her family.
“Our prayers are now with Asia and her family as they seek peace and security in a new country. However, we are also very concerned for the safety of Pakistan’s Christian community at large. Asia’s case remains highly sensitive and the ignition point for many acts of religious hatred. It is our hope that Pakistan will be able to secure all Pakistani Christians as extremists may seek revenge against their community.”
CNN confirmed that Bibi has arrived in Canada, according to her lawyer, Saif Ul Malook.
CNN said Bibi, a mother of five from Punjab province, was taken out of the country after repeated death threats from religious extremists in Pakistan, following the quashing of her conviction for blasphemy.
She has been separated from her family and living in safe houses since the 2018 overturning of the sentence. Her children are already in Canada.
Bibi was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to hang after she was accused of defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed during an argument a year earlier with Muslim colleagues.
The workers had refused to drink from a bucket of water Bibi had touched because she was not Muslim. At the time, Bibi said the case was a matter of women who didn’t like her “taking revenge.”
Under Pakistan’s penal code, the offense of blasphemy is punishable by death or life imprisonment. Widely criticized by international human rights groups, the law has been used disproportionately against minority religious groups in the country and to go after critics of the Pakistani religious establishment.
Last year, she won her appeal against the conviction and death sentence sparking widespread protests throughout Pakistan.
Before her conviction was overturned, the Islamist movement Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) had previously vowed to take to the streets if Bibi were released, and large protests broke out in Islamabad and Lahore soon after the ruling was announced.
The group went on the rampage when Bibi was acquitted in 2018, with protesters jamming into cities, attacking public property and burning cars.
At the time, the leader of Pakistan’s far-right Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik movement and dozens of his supporters were placed into “protective custody,” with a government spokesman saying the arrests were aimed at preventing protests from going ahead out of fear for public safety.
The TLP were later subdued through a deal reached between the Pakistani government and the group — with the government agreeing not to oppose a review petition filed against the Supreme Court’s judgment.
‘More sinned against than sinning’
In its ruling in October, Pakistan’s Supreme Court court quoted Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” saying Bibi appeared to have been “more sinned against than sinning.”
“Even if there was some grain of truth in the allegations leveled in this case against the appellant still the glaring contradictions in the evidence of the prosecution highlighted above clearly show that the truth in this case had been mixed with a lot which was untrue,” the ruling said.
CNN reported that earlier this year, the country’s Supreme Court said her case would not be retried, as judges rejected a petition to review their previous decision.
Judges were dismissive of the case against Bibi in the petition to have her case retried, saying the crime had not been established and listing inconsistencies in witness testimonies.
“We are not hearing the case again, the lawyer was unable to point out a single error in the judgment,” Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa said of the petition to review last year’s ruling.
“We have to look at the value of the statements by witnesses, how can we hang someone on a false witness statement.”
The petition to review was not able to pinpoint any mistake in the verdict acquitting Bibi, the court said, according to the CNN report.
Even after her sentence was commuted, she was forced to remain in the same prison due to concerns over her safety. She has since been shuttled around the country from safe house to safe house to protect her from reprisals.
Under Pakistan’s penal code, the offense of blasphemy is punishable by death or life imprisonment.
Widely criticized by international human rights groups, the law has been used disproportionately against minority religious groups in the country and to go after journalists critical of the Pakistani religious establishment.
Bibi’s case attracted widespread outrage and support from Christians worldwide.
CNN said when her family met with Pope Francis in February at the Vatican, the Pontiff reportedly described Bibi as a “martyr,” according to Alessandro Mondeduro, president of the charity Aid to the Church in Need. Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had also called for Bibi’s release.
In her 2012 book, “Get Me Out of Here,” Bibi included a letter to her family urging them not to “lose courage or faith in Jesus Christ.”
The vociferousness of Pakistan’s hardline Islamists, along with the blasphemy laws which activists say unfairly tackle religious minorities, make being a practicing Christian problematic in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s Christians make up only 1.59% of its population of more than 200 million, but according to Peter Jacob, the executive director for the Center for Social Justice in Lahore, the impact of blasphemy laws on minorities is hugely disproportionate.
The Center for Social Justice estimates 50% of those accused of blasphemy are non-Muslims.
While major militant-backed attacks on Christians have decreased, activists told CNN that the main issue facing the community is systematic bias within Pakistani society.
CNN said school textbooks still rarely mention the achievements of minority Pakistanis, while in the province of Punjab members of the Christian community occupy most of the slums in the region.