Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced that Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who last year was saved from death row after being accused of blasphemy against Islam, will soon leave Pakistan to be reunited with her family.
“She will leave Pakistan in a couple of weeks,” Khan told foreign journalists in Islamabad.
News of the impending release came on the heels of British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s statement in the UK Parliament earlier this month that Bibi’s freedom was being negotiated.
“Making sure that she is safe and has somewhere safe to go is a top priority for this government,” Hunt told legislators. “We have had numerous discussions in private with [the] Pakistani government about how to progress on this. We are making progress, and I’m very hopeful that this will have a positive outcome.”
Pakistani authorities confirmed to The Media Line that the necessary documentation, including visa and air tickets, was ready.
“She is all set to travel abroad. We are waiting for the green signal from concerned authorities in this regard,” a senior government official told The Media Line on condition of anonymity.
Bibi, a Christian mother of five, had been on death row since 2010. She was accused of committing blasphemy in 2009, when she left home early one June morning for farm work, like many of the women in her village.
On that fateful day, as she was picking berries under the scorching sun, she was asked by her colleagues to fetch some water from the nearby well. She set off, jug in hand. But on her way back, she took a sip of the water before handing it over to her Muslim co-workers, which made them furious.
In Pakistan, most Muslims refrain from eating or drinking with people of other faiths, whom they believe are impure. Angered by Asia’s taking a sip of water, her Muslim colleagues told her she was dirty and not worthy of drinking from the same cup as they.
A fierce argument erupted and harsh words were exchanged, climaxing with the Muslim workers accusing Bibi of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
Several days later, police barged into Bibi’s house and arrested her on suspicion of blasphemy. During her trial, she maintained her innocence, but in 2010 was sentenced to death. She spent the past nine years in solitary confinement.
Bibi’s case came under scrutiny on January 4, 2011, when Salmaan Taseer, one of Pakistan’s most prominent politicians and the governor of Punjab, the country’s biggest province, was assassinated in Islamabad by one of his bodyguards, apparently for trying to secure Bibi’s release. International media described the assassination as “one of the most traumatic events in Pakistani history.”
Hopes for Bibi’s early release sank following Taseer’s death, but her family never lost hope, her husband appealing the death sentence before Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
On October 31, 2018, the court acquitted Bibi, citing “material contradictions and inconsistent statements of the witnesses” that “cast a shadow of doubt on the prosecution’s version of the facts.”
The ruling sparked nationwide protests headed by right-wing Islamist parties. Meanwhile, human rights groups such as International Christian Concern, Open Doors and Aid to the Church in Need widely hailed the decision.
The government filed a review petition before the Supreme Court against her acquittal. Meanwhile, on November 7, the authorities released her, moving her to a safe house in Islamabad in response to death threats. One of the threats came from hardline Muslim cleric Maulana Yousaf Qureshi, who offered a reward of 500,000 rupees ($3,700) to anyone who would kill her.
On January 29, the government petition appealing Bibi’s acquittal was rejected, lifting the last legal hurdle in the case and paving the way for her to leave the country. Her family had already moved to Canada due to the death threats.
“I am missing her so much,” Bibi’s youngest daughter, Eisham Ashiq, 18, told The Daily Mail on Sunday. “I think about her all the time and I speak to her on the phone all the time. I say to her, ‘Have faith in God, because if God can release you from jail, God can release you from where you are now. He will bring you out.’”
Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman Mohammad Faisal told The Media Line that Asia was free following the court’s decision.
“To the best of my knowledge, Asia Bibi is still in Pakistan. She is a free woman. Only she can decide whether to live in Pakistan or move abroad,” Faisal said.
Ahmer Shaheen, managing editor of Pakistan’s The Daily Times, says Pakistan is not doing anyone a favor by letting an innocent person go.
“Asia Bibi’s case was high profile,” he told The Media Line. “Punjab’s former governor Shaheed Salman Taseer and former federal minister of minorities Shaheed Shahbaz Bhatti gave their lives to highlight her plight. [But] many more languish in jails, as the state is not ready to give them justice as yet…. The state needs to be sympathetic toward all its citizens, because that is its primary responsibility. Acting on international pressure will always be too little too late.”
While many in Pakistan and abroad have hailed the prime minister’s statement about Bibi’s imminent release and reunion with her family abroad, her case is highly unlikely to change the situation for Pakistan’s Christian community.
In February, a teenage Christian girl was allegedly abducted and forcefully converted to Islam. The victim’s family claims her abductors are using the country’s legal system to keep her from returning home.
According to International Christian Concern (ICC), 13-year-old Sadaf Masih was abducted by three men identified as Maqbool Hussain, Mubashir Hussain Baloch and Azhir Hussain Baloch. Eight days after her abduction, her family was told that she had converted to Islam and married a Muslim man.
ICC noted that abductions and forced conversions to Islam were common among religious minorities in Pakistan. An estimated 1,000 women from the country’s Christian and Hindu communities are abducted, raped, and forcefully converted to Islam each year.
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