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Asia Bibi: Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy finally leaves Pakistan for Canada

'Asia Bibi has left the country. She is a free person and travelled on her independent will'

Adam Withnall
Asia Editor
Wednesday 08 May 2019 08:56 BST
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The bravery and perseverance of Bibi, her family, and her legal team should not be overshadowed
The bravery and perseverance of Bibi, her family, and her legal team should not be overshadowed

A Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row after being accused of blasphemy has left the country to join her family in Canada, her lawyer and officials said.

It marks the conclusion of an extraordinary ordeal for mother-of-five Asia Bibi, who was first convicted in 2010 after neighbours accused her of insulting the Prophet Muhammad during an argument.

Ms Bibi was acquitted by the Supreme Court last year and in January the court rejected petitions to review the decision. With tensions high over the case, she has been living in government safe houses in Pakistan since her acquittal.

“I have inquired within available channels, and according to them she has left for Canada,” Ms Bibi’s lawyer, Saif ul-Malook, told Reuters. It has previously been reported that Ms Bibi’s two daughters have been granted asylum in Canada, and prime minister Justin Trudeau confirmed he was in talks with Pakistan to offer sanctuary to Ms Bibi and her husband.

“Asia Bibi has left the country,” a Pakistani Foreign Office source told news outlets, including IndependentUrdu and Dawn, one of the country’s leading English-language newspapers. “She is a free person and travelled on her independent will.”

Supporters of far-right Islamist party TLP party protest at the acquittal of Asia Bibi

CNN reported on Wednesday that Ms Bibi had left Pakistan more than 24 hours earlier. And a close friend told the Associated Press that Ms Bibi and her husband Ashiq Masih had spent the last few weeks getting their documents in order.

The friend said Ms Bibi was longing to see her daughters, with whom she talked almost daily from her secure location that is protected by Pakistani security forces.

The case has drawn attention to Pakistan’s controversial laws on blasphemy, an offence which carries an automatic death sentence and even just suspicions of which can incite lynch mobs to form.

Ms Bibi and her family have faced constant threats from hardline Islamists who see her case as totemic of the loosening of such laws. In November, the Dutch embassy in Pakistan was forced to recall staff and close some services after it was targeted following the granting of asylum in the Netherlands to Ms Bibi’s lawyer.

In October 2018, after the Supreme Court quashed Ms Bibi’s blasphemy conviction citing lack of evidence, followers of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) movement rioted across several major cities, burning cars and damaging property.

The clashes forced prime minister Imran Khan to promise Ms Bibi would not be allowed to leave Pakistan until the final petition against her was heard by the Supreme Court. That was dismissed in January, with judges saying the petitioners were “unable to point out a single error in the [October] judgment”.

The Supreme Court judges were also highly critical of the original conviction of Ms Bibi, saying it boiled down to lies told by the woman’s Muslim neighbours following a personal spat. “We have to look at the value of the statements by witnesses,” said chief justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa. “How can we hang someone on a false witness statement?”

While Canada’s has been the most outspoken government in offering asylum to Ms Bibi, other countries including Italy and the UK have been involved in talks to secure her safe passage out of Pakistan.

Wilson Chowdhry, of the British Pakistani Christian Association, said a British diplomat had first informed him of the latest development with a text simply stating: “Asia is out.”

Mr Chowdhry said he had been in regular contact both with the family and with a host of diplomats, and that it had been an international effort to have Ms Bibi freed.

Jeremy Hunt, the UK foreign secretary, said Ms Bibi’s departure from Pakistan was “fantastic news”. He said he was “about to meet [Archbishop of Canterbury] Justin Welby and [US secretary of state] Mike Pompeo to talk about persecution of Christians around the world”. He added that Ms Bibi’s case “shows that with concerted effort, the right thing can happen”.

Additional reporting by agencies

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