Asia Bibi, the Christian farm labourer whose blasphemy case has triggered violent protests and assassinations in Pakistan, has been freed from jail but remains in protective custody, a week after the country’s supreme court overturned her conviction.
Officials said that she left a detention facility in the Punjab province amid tight security on Wednesday and was flown to Islamabad, where she was at a secure location because of threats to her life.
A spokesman for Pakistan’s foreign office said on Thursday that reports Bibi had left the country were false, in a statement backed up by sources close to the family.
Bibi, who had spent eight years on death row, had been left in limbo after the government struck a deal with religious conservatives to end protests, which erupted after her acquittal.
Her husband and children have been living at a secret address in Pakistan in fear of their lives, and have made repeated appeals to the international community to help secure the whole family’s safety.
“Help us get out of Pakistan. We are extremely worried because our lives are in danger. We no longer have even anything to eat, because we cannot leave the house to buy food,” Ashiq Masih, Bibi’s husband, told Aid to the Church in Need, which campaigns on religious freedom.
He told the BBC World Service that he had not seen Bibi since her acquittal, and the family was worried about her safety. Religious extremists have threatened to kill her.
Authorities now say Bibi may not be able to leave the country because a petition for a review of the court’s ruling was filed by a radical Islamist lawyer requesting the acquittal be reversed. Pakistani courts usually take years to decide such cases.
Bibi’s lawyer, Saiful Mulook, fled Pakistan at the weekend after being issued with death threats, and is seeking asylum in the Netherlands.
Canada, France and Spain were reportedly considering offering asylum to Bibi and her family. Her husband has also appealed to the UK and the US to offer a safe haven.
In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the hardline anti-migrant interior minister, said he would do “all that is humanly possible” to ensure Bibi and her family were safe, either in Italy or elsewhere.
Bibi was convicted of blasphemy after a row with Muslim women in her village. Two Pakistani politicians were killed for publicly supporting her and criticising the country’s blasphemy laws.
The supreme court’s decision last week to overturn the verdict led to violent protests throughout Pakistan and calls for the judges in the case to be killed.
Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister since July, has been criticised for capitulating to extremists over the case.
“Khan swept to power earlier this year on promises to restore the rule of law, to champion the oppressed and marginalised and to deliver justice. His party is, after all, called the Movement for Justice,” said Omar Waraich of Amnesty International.
“But what does that even mean when, in the space of just two days, he went from warning the mob against using violence, to bowing to their demands?”
Khan’s former wife, Jemima Goldsmith, accused him on Twitter of caving in “to extremist demands to bar #AsiaBibi from leaving [Pakistan], after she was acquitted of blasphemy – effectively signing her death warrant”.
The Religious Liberty Commission, a coalition of organisations campaigning against Christian persecution, have called on Khan to allow Bibi to leave the country.
“Following her unjust imprisonment and long-awaited release, it is clear that Asia’s life is in danger in Pakistan … As others involved with the case continue to flee the country, we affirm that Asia’s safety is now the responsibility of prime minister Khan,” it said.
This story originally appeared in The Guardian. Image courtesy of AP.