A Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row for blasphemy has been freed from jail a week after her acquittal in a landmark case triggered angry Islamist protests, her lawyer said Thursday.
Asia Bibi’s conviction was overturned by the country’s highest court last Wednesday, but she remained in prison as the government negotiated with hardliners who blockaded major cities and demanded her immediate execution.
“She has been freed,” lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook said in a text message to AFP. “I have been told that she is on a plane but nobody knows where she will land.”
According to a civil aviation official, the aircraft which collected Bibi from jail is registered in Pakistan and is therefore obliged to land in Islamabad.
Following protests at last week’s ruling, the government agreed in a deal with Islamists to impose a travel ban on Bibi, and not to challenge an appeal in the Supreme Court.
An order for her release arrived Wednesday at the jail in the central city of Multan where she was detained, a prison official told AFP.
“Asia Bibi has left the prison and has been transferred to a safe place!” tweeted Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament.
Another civil aviation official, in Multan, said a small plane arrived in the city with “a few foreigners and some Pakistanis” on board to fetch Bibi.
Her case has underscored deep divisions between traditionalists and modernisers in the devoutly Muslim country.
The conviction stemmed from a 2009 incident when Bibi was asked to fetch water while out working in the fields.
Muslim women labourers objected to her touching the water bowl as a non-Muslim, and a fight reportedly erupted.
A local imam then claimed Bibi insulted the Prophet Mohammed.
Bibi has consistently denied the charges, and her prosecution rallied international rights groups, politician, and religious figures.
Pope Benedict XVI called for her release in 2010, while his successor, Pope Francis, met the prisoner’s daughter in 2015.
– Incendiary charge –
Bibi’s husband Ashiq Masih has appealed for Britain or the United States to grant the family asylum, while her lawyer has fled to the Netherlands.
Several governments including Italy and France have offered to help.
Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini tweeted: “I will do everything humanly possible to guarantee this young woman’s future.”
Blasphemy is an incendiary charge in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unsubstantiated allegations of insulting Islam can result in death at the hands of mobs.
Mere calls to reform the law have provoked violence, most notably the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, by his own bodyguard in broad daylight in Islamabad in 2011.
Taseer had called for Bibi’s release, and his son Shahbaz tweeted “Pakistan Zindabad” (“Long live Pakistan”) following last week’s ruling.
Thousands of Islamist hardliners poured onto the streets in protest after Supreme Court judges overturned Bibi’s conviction last Wednesday.
Demonstrations broke out in major cities across Pakistan in the ruling’s wake, with club-wielding protesters blocking Islamabad’s main highway and barricading roads in Karachi and Lahore.
One of the most vocal groups — the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) — called for “mutiny” against the army’s top brass and the assassination of the top court’s justices.
Mulook and Pakistani media criticised the government for caving in to the Islamist hardliners after Prime Minister Imran Khan had at first appeared to stand up to them.