Pakistani Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy 'secure,' out of jail

A Pakistani Christian woman has been freed from prison a week after the Supreme Court overturned her conviction and death sentence for blasphemy against Islam, and she is at a secure location in the country, officials said on Thursday.

Hardline Islamists have called for Asia Bibi to be executed

Asia Bibi, seen in this photo from 2010, has been released from prison but is being held in an undisclosed location because of fears for her safety. Bibi's acquittal on charges of blasphemy has enraged Pakistan's hardline Islamists. (Associated Press)

A Pakistani Christian woman has been freed from prison a week after the Supreme Court overturned her conviction and death sentence for blasphemy against Islam, and she is at a secure location in the country, officials said on Thursday.

Officials dismissed some media reports that the woman, Asia Bibi, had been flown abroad, which would enrage hardline Islamists who have been demanding Bibi's death as well as the death of the three Supreme Court judges who acquitted her last week. 

Following her acquittal, the hardline Tehreek-e-Labaik Party (TLP) forced a countrywide shutdown as their supporters took to the streets for three days in protest and has threatened to paralyze the country with more protests if her acquittal is not reversed.

The rallies only dispersed after Prime Minister Imran Khan's government promised a court would review a motion to challenge the acquittal and deny Bibi permission to leave Pakistan. 

Bibi, 53, was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death in 2010 over allegations she made derogatory remarks about Islam after two fellow women farmworkers refused to drink from the same container as a Christian.

She always denied having committed blasphemy.

'Concerned for your safety'

Her case garnered international attention and has outraged Christians worldwide.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani invited Bibi and her family to Europe. In a letter, a copy of which was seen by The Associated Press, Tajani tells Bibi's husband Ashiq Masih that the European Parliament is "extremely concerned for your safety as well as your family's, due to the violence by extremist elements in Pakistan."

Supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a hardline religious political party, chant slogans during a sit-in protest in Lahore on Nov. 1, 2018, following the Supreme Court decision to overturn Bibi's conviction. (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

The letter added to expectations that Bibi and her family would leave for Europe, though their destination has not been confirmed. Earlier, Spain and France had offered her asylum. ​Italy said on Tuesday it would try to help Bibi, who is Catholic, to leave Pakistan. Canada was also engaged in secret talks with allies over how to protect Bibi, Liberal MP Andrew Leslie confirmed earlier this week.

Pope Francis met Bibi's family this year, saying he prayed for her.

​Bibi's lawyer, who fled Pakistan and this week sought asylum in the Netherlands, confirmed she was no longer in prison.

"All I can tell you is that she has been released," lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook told Reuters by phone from the Netherlands, where the government said on Thursday it had offered him temporary asylum.

Hardliners 'agitated'

Pakistan's foreign ministry denied reports that Bibi had left the country and pointed out that a review of the Supreme Court decision to free her was pending.

"Asia Bibi is completely secure at a safe place in Pakistan," said ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal.

"Her writ is in court. When that is decided, Asia Bibi can go anywhere she wants to, she is a free national ... if she wants to go abroad, no harm in it."

Insulting Islam's prophet Mohammad carries a mandatory death penalty in Pakistan, which is about 95 per cent Muslim and has among the harshest blasphemy laws in the world.

No executions for blasphemy have been carried out in Pakistan but enraged mobs sometimes kill people accused of blasphemy.

Rights groups say the blasphemy law is exploited by hardliners as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.

Christians make up about two per cent of the population.

A spokesperson for the TLP said her release violated the deal with the government to end the protests.

"The TLP activists are agitated as the government has breached the agreement with our party. The rulers have showed their dishonesty," Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters.

If the government allows Bibi to leave, it would likely face more paralyzing protests from the TLP and other Islamist parties.