The government of Pakistan confirmed on Thursday that Asia Bibi, a Christian woman whose acquittal on blasphemy charges have triggered violent Islamist riots, remains in Pakistan despite rumors she has left prison and flown to the capital, Islamabad.
Islamist mobs, some numbering in the thousands, have threatened to kill Bibi, her family, and the judges who acquitted her since the Supreme Court ruled last week that insufficient evidence existed for Bibi to remain on death row for blasphemy. Her family has urged a country in the West to offer them asylum immediately, citing the imminent threat to their lives if they stay in the country even if authorities free Bibi.
Late Wednesday, reports surfaced that Bibi had left the prison where she had spent much of her time behind bars in Multan and was taken to an airport, where she reportedly took flight to an undisclosed location. Rumors spread that Bibi was on her way to Europe, where her attorney fled last week also citing death threats. Yet Pakistani officials clarified the next day that Bibi remained in the country, without elaborating. Dawn had reported previously that Bibi flew to Islamabad.
“There is no truth in reports of her leaving the country — it is fake news,” Foreign Office Spokesperson Mohammad Faisal told the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. He added that Bibi was “in a safe place” but refused to provide more information, other than to add that, should appeals to keep her in prison fail, “she can go wherever she wants.”
Another minister, Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry, took to Twitter to denounce the reports about Bibi.
“It has become a norm to publish fake news for sake of headlines,” he wrote. “#AsiaBibi case is sensitive issue; it was extremely irresponsible to publish news of her leaving the country without confirmation. I strongly urge section of media to act responsible.”
Despite being acquitted of all charges a week ago, Bibi remained in prison in part because the Pakistani government came to an agreement with the Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) party, the main radical Islamist group organizing nationwide riots, to allow them to make yet another appeal on her case and file for placing her on the national Exit Control List (ECL), barring her from leaving the country. Yet a government official told Voice of America this week that Bibi cannot appear on the ECL if she has not been convicted or even indicted of a crime, as is the case currently.
The TLP responded to the news that Bibi had been moved from prison by accusing the government of breaching their deal. According to a TLP spokesman, the party believes “her release violated a deal with the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan to end the protests.” The TLP has not yet called for another round of protests, however.
The government’s agreement, while once again jeopardizing Bibi’s legal state, only asked of the TLP to apologize for the riots. The riots occurred in Pakistan’s major cities – Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, among others – and forced schools and businesses to shut down. Government officials are still working to tally up the total property damage from the riots and have arrested thousands participating.
Pakistani officials have also defended the TLP.
“We showed TLP the footage of the people being violent on the streets and they distanced themselves from the people in the video,” Minister of State for Interior Shehryar Afridi told Pakistani senators on Thursday. “We met with the TLP leadership yesterday and I will soon brief the prime minister on what transpired during the meeting.”
Afridi added that those who protest independently of the TLP will “receive no concessions.”
Protests continued on Thursday, this time organized by the less influential Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) group and limited to Karachi. The protest, while smaller than the riots last week, nonetheless attracted a crowd large enough to fill the streets.
— norbert almeida (@norbalm) November 8, 2018
Asia Bibi, a Roman Catholic, was arrested in 2009 after two Muslim women accused her of insulting Muhammad, a crime punishable by death in Pakistan. Bibi was found guilty and sentenced to hang in 2010, remaining on death row ever since. Last week, three justices on the Pakistani Supreme Court acquitted Bibi, citing no evidence existing against her, and sternly rebuked her accusers, accusing them in turn of blaspheming through their lies.
False accusations of blasphemy are common in Pakistan. While the nation has never executed anyone for blasphemy, dozens of cases exist in recent memory of Christians accused of defaming Islam being killed by angry mobs as police look on. Pakistani courts rarely, if ever, entertain charges of blaspheming against any religion other than Islam, as the penal code cites only insulting Muhammad, Islam generally, or desecrating a Quran as specific crimes.
While Bibi’s whereabouts remain unknown, supporters of persecuted Christians have demanded their governments act to save her in Canada and much of Europe, including France, Spain, and Italy. The Italian government formally offered asylum on Wednesday.