The government of Pakistan promised the radical Islamist Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party this weekend it would begin a legal process to prevent Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of four acquitted of blasphemy last week, from leaving the country, a move almost certainly ensuring her death at the hands of a violent mob.
Bibi was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to death in 2010 for allegedly insulting Muhammad, a charge she has denied for nearly a decade. Last week, the nation’s Supreme Court issued a ruling dismissing all charges against Bibi, asserting that insufficient evidence exists against her and that those who lied about her blasphemy themselves committed blasphemy by doing so.
The Pakistani penal code proscribes a variety of punishments for blasphemy against Islam generally. Blasphemy against the person of Muhammad, however, demands a sentence of capital punishment.
In response, TLP radicals and other Islamic groups flooded the streets of Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, and other major cities demanding Bibi’s death, as well as the death of her defense attorney and the three Supreme Court justices who ruled in her favor. The protests, attracting thousands of Muslim men, initially triggered a stern government response midweek, but by Friday the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan was holding emergency meetings seeking a resolution to the protests.
The protests forced schools to close, shut down major roads, and damaged businesses.
On Friday night, the TLP ordered its members to stop rioting and announced that the government had agreed to a deal that would allow for them to appeal Bibi’s acquittal – despite the Supreme Court being Pakistan’s court of last resort – and would begin the process of placing Bibi on the nation’s Exit Control List (ECL), banning her from leaving the country, according to the newspaper Dawn. In exchange, the radical Islamist group would have to issue a public apology for its disturbances this week and accept the prosecution of some of its most violent rioters, but nothing more.
TLP patron-in-chief Pir Afzal Qadri issued a statement explaining that their illegitimate appeal would fall in the hands of a new Supreme Court bench not featuring the justices who acquitted Bibi. Qadri added that, should Bibi leave the country and find asylum in a safe region, “a war would immediately begin in the country and there (would be) a call for a revolution.”
The TL is expected to file the illegitimate appeal on Monday, according to the British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA), an advocacy group defending Christians in the country who face severe persecution. BPCA has been working closely with the Bibi family for a resolution that will allow the entire family to leave the country, as the mobs have demanded all of their deaths.
The BPCA is advocating for a neutral country to grant asylum to Bibi, her husband, and her four children before the completion of the bureaucratic process to place her on the Exit Control List.
“The farce of appeal after appeal, with judges stepping out at the last minute that has gone on for almost 10 years cannot be lost on the World. Why are these human right abuses and these clearly unacceptable blasphemy laws in Pakistan so often ignored?” Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the BPCA, said in a statement.
Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, is urging a Western country to grant the family asylum.
“I request [U.S.] President Donald Trump to help us leave [the country], and I request the prime minister of the U.K. to do their level best to help us, to grant us freedom,” Masih said in a statement this weekend, also urging the Canadian government to act.
At press time, Bibi is believed to be held in an undisclosed location for her safety; her acquittal has yet to be processed. She has also not received full asylum for her family, though some reports suggest she personally has received offers.
Bibi’s attorney, Saiful Mulook, left Pakistan for the Netherlands on Saturday.
“In the current scenario, it’s not possible for me to live in Pakistan. I need to stay alive as I still have to fight the legal battle for Asia Bibi,” he reportedly told Agence France-Presse. He added that, for him, the protests were expected, but “what’s painful is the response of the government. They cannot even implement an order of the country’s highest court.”
The decision to make a deal with the TLP was met with significant concern on the part of some in the Pakistani government.
“Appeasement historically never works,” Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari wrote on Twitter about the deal. “Appeasement to ‘avoid bloodshed’ sends a dangerous message to non-state actors and undermines the very concept of democratic, peaceful protest.”
As a member of the government, however, Mazari concluded that she trusted Prime Minister Imran Khan, who assumed the head of government position in large part thanks to support from radical Islamic groups.
As the deal between the TLP and the government of Pakistan did not include other Islamist radical groups, protests continued on Monday, as well as extensive police action to arrest and disarm the “miscreants” continuing to threaten Pakistan’s cities. The Express Tribune reported on Monday that dozens of men have been arrested nationwide in the past 24 hours for crimes related to protesting Asia Bibi’s freedom, including vandalism, hate speech, and destruction of state property.