ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Thursday provided its first official confirmation that Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who spent eight years on death row falsely charged with blasphemy, had left the country more than six months after being acquitted by the Supreme Court.
The case created an international furore in October, after her release prompted days of rioting and demands for her death from hardline Islamists who rejected the outcome and warned Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government not to let her leave.
“Asia Bibi has left Pakistan of her free will,” foreign office spokesman Mohammad Faisal told reporters in Islamabad, the capital. “She is a free person and left of her own free will.” Faisal did not confirm media reports that she had joined family members in Canada, however.
On Wednesday, Bibi’s lawyer Saif-Ul-Malook said she had left for Canada to unite with her daughters, who were believed to have already taken asylum there, but Canadian authorities have not confirmed this.
In November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada was in talks with Pakistan about helping Bibi. This week, Canada said it had no comment on the matter, however.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court in January upheld an earlier verdict to free Bibi, but officials have worried that her sudden departure could trigger further riots.
After 10 years of political turmoil, assassinations and violent demonstrations, Asia Bibi’s exit from Pakistan was met largely with silence, as the country appeared to seek a quiet close to a turbulent chapter.
Even as the Christian woman’s flight to safety in Canada made international headlines on Wednesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government said nothing.
It was left to a foreign ministry spokesman to confirm her departure on Thursday, with Mohammad Faisal telling journalists Bibi had left the country “at her own will” as he declined to say anything further.
The silence echoed across the country’s usually rambunctious media, with most newspapers glossing over the episode and primetime television shows offering it only a passing mention.
It was a jarring contrast to the violent protests staged by hardliners against Bibi in recent years, including last October, when the Supreme Court overturned her death sentence for blasphemy.
Islamists took to the streets at the time calling for mutiny in the armed forces and the assassination of the country’s top judges.
“The government clearly doesn’t want there to be a reaction from violent mobs,” said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director at Amnesty International.
“They are worried that they will be accused of being part of what some hardliners call a Western conspiracy against Islam to punish those who stand up for the Prophet [Mohammad] (PBUH), and protect those accused of insulting the Prophet (PBUH).”
Many of the protest ringleaders were rounded up in a government crackdown and remain in detention — a possible reason why Bibi’s flight to freedom after months spent in protective custody in Pakistan did not ignite further demonstrations.
Bibi was first convicted and sentenced to death for committing blasphemy during an altercation with fellow labourers in 2009.
Her case was taken up by liberal provincial governor Salmaan Taseer, who was later killed in broad daylight in Islamabad in 2011 by his own bodyguard, angered by Taseer’s stance on blasphemy.
The killing was followed the same year by the assassination of minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, who had also fought to clear Bibi’s name.
The years-long debacle underscored the depth with which religious extremism has cut across wide sections of Pakistani society and the country’s untouchable blasphemy laws have been effectively weaponized by Islamists.
Blasphemy continues to be a massively incendiary charge in Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam can spark lynchings and targeted killings.
Christians met the news of Bibi’s departure with mixed emotions — with many expressing happiness that she was free, while acknowledging that staying in the country would have likely meant a violent death at the hands of vigilantes.
“It was problem for her to live here. It is obvious that she might be killed by the people. We think it is good that she has been sent [to Canada],” said Fayyaz Bhatti, a Pakistani Christian in Islamabad.
“Now her life is saved and she can meet her children.”