ISLAMABAD (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 after a quarrel with a fellow farmworker. The Supreme Court overturned her conviction last year, and she had been in protective custody since then.
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 Bibi’s acquittal
Wilson Chawdhry of the British Pakistani Christian Association told The Associated Press that he received a text message from a British diplomat saying “Aasia 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.
Officials at Pakistan’s interior and foreign ministries also confirmed her departure, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief media.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted his pleasure at Bibi’s departure.
“Fantastic news that Asia Bibi appears to have left Pakistan safely,” he tweeted, adding that he was about to meet U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “to talk about persecution of Christians around the world.”
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. Blasphemy allegations have 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. The reluctance of local and foreign officials to speak openly of Bibi’s departure may reflect fears of igniting more violence.
Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was shot and killed by one of his guards in 2011 for defending 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 Bibi.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has vowed not to be intimidated by the rioters, saying the rule of law would decide 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 to almost daily from her secure location, protected by Pakistani security forces.
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 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.
(Associated Press writer Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.)