The Pakistani Christian woman who spent years on death row after being convicted of blasphemy has left the country where she has been living in hiding as one of the nation’s most reviled figures.
Asia Bibi’s lawyer, Saif-ul Malook, told NPR the practicing Catholic and her husband arrived in Canada on Tuesday, where they have reunited with their children.
“I am happy that she has been allowed to leave the country,” Malook said.
Although he was unable to speak with Bibi before her departure, he said the Canadian embassy arranged the couple’s move. “She will be more secure in Canada,” he added.
“I think it is a wise decision by the government of Pakistan to let her go. After all they did not have any legal justification to bar her from traveling because she was a free citizen after the Supreme Court’s decision.”
Although she was exonerated in October 2018, a review petition against her release prevented her from leaving the country. That was rejected a few months ago.
Bibi, an illiterate farm worker, was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 after being accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad by her fellow Muslim workers when they feared she might drink water from the same vessel. She was sentenced to death and spent more than eight years in solitary confinement before the country’s Supreme Court acquitted her in October 2018.
The reversal and the court’s subsequent decision to uphold the ruling, each sparked days of violent demonstrations and rioting that roiled the country. Religious radicals, who demanded her execution, levied death threats against Bibi as well as the judges who freed her. They also urged Pakistani military forces to revolt against the army chief of staffs and for the public to overthrow of the government.
For their own protection, Bibi and her husband had been living in an undisclosed location since her conviction was overturned. For months, she had been planning to join her two daughters, who had also faced threats of violence in Pakistan and fled to Canada where they received asylum.
Global Affairs Canada, the Canadian government’s diplomacy arm, said it had no comment on the matter.
“Asia Bibi is now free, and we wish her and her family all the best following their reunification,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Wednesday. “The United States uniformly opposes blasphemy laws anywhere in the world, as they jeopardize the exercise of fundamental freedoms.”
Responding to reports of Bibi’s successful departure to Canada, human rights organization Amnesty International said, “She should never have been imprisoned in the first place, let alone faced the death penalty. That she then had to endure the repeated threats to her life, even after being acquitted, only compounds the injustice. This case illustrates the dangers of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the urgent need to repeal them.”
As NPR’s Philip Reeves reported, despite pressure from international organizations and governments, as well as more progressive pockets of the population, “open discussion of the blasphemy laws will remain extremely difficult in Pakistan because of the deadly response it can draw from religious extremists.”
On Tuesday, Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, which has been in contact with Bibi throughout the ordeal, said she and her husband “have remained resolute in their faith and have prayed daily for their release and today God has answered their prayers.”
The group reports 14 Christians, in addition to Bibi, have been accused of blasphemy in recent years and in remain in jail.
“Since 1990, at least 65 people have reportedly been killed in Pakistan over claims of blasphemy,” the BBC reported.