Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy in Pakistan arrives in Canada

A lawyer representing a Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy after spending eight years on death row in Pakistan says she has arrived in Canada.

Asia Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2009 after a quarrel with a fellow farmworker

Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row for blasphemy, has arrived in Canada. (Asad Karim/Reuters)

A lawyer representing a Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy after she spent eight years on death row in Pakistan says she has arrived in Canada.

Pakistani officials and others involved in the case said Wednesday that Asia Bibi had left Pakistan to be reunited with her daughters in Canada, where they had been granted asylum. Her lawyer, Saif-ul Malook, said she had already arrived in Canada.

Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2009 after a quarrel with a fellow farmworker. Pakistan's 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 on Wednesday 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.

A statement from the association says it received confirmation around 8 p.m. ET Tuesday that Bibi "had safely exited Pakistan."

"Asia Bibi bravely held on to her faith through the most brutal of incarcerations that involved her having access to sunlight for two hours per month," the statement says. "Now she finally travels to Canada to be reunited with her children."

Chowdhry said in the statement released by the association that Bibi is "unwell" after suffering a decade of isolation both in and out of captivity.

"She must be treated with utmost care and receive appropriate medical care now she is free," he said.

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.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would not discuss the case Wednesday.

"I have no comment," Trudeau said. "Obviously, there are sensitive privacy issues and security issues on this and unfortunately I can't comment at this time."

Global Affairs Canada said Wednesday it "has no comment on this matter." Trudeau said last November that Canada was then in talks with the Pakistani government about Bibi.

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.

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 get her to safety.

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.

Students from a religious seminary shout slogans as they demand punishment for Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, during a rally in Karachi on Nov. 26, 2010. Bibi has long maintained she was wrongly implicated in the case. (Athar Hussain/Reuters)

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 hardliners 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.

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.

With files from the The Associated Press