Woman at centre of Pakistani blasphemy row leaves jail

Gohar ABBAS
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Questions remain over Bibi's whereabouts, the court's decision, and how hardliners may react to further developments

A Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row for blasphemy has been freed from jail after an acquittal that triggered Islamist protests, but is still in Pakistan, officials said Thursday amid appeals for her to be offered asylum.

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.

Thousands of supporters of Islamist parties took to the streets of Karachi Thursday to protest Bibi's acquittal and call for her beheading.

"We can sacrifice our lives but can never compromise on the honour of the prophet," said a speaker at the protest.

The demonstration comes hours after Bibi was flown from the central city of Multan where she was in custody to a "safe" place elsewhere in Pakistan.

"She has been freed," her 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."

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 a review of the Supreme Court's ruling.

One of the most vocal groups in the protests -- the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) -- called for "mutiny" against the army's top brass and the assassination of the top court's justices.

Following Bibi's release, the TLP vowed to return to the streets if she was allowed to leave the country.

"If the promise is broken and she is sent abroad, then Allah willing, a movement will start and it will be decisive," said TLP leader Afzal Qadri, after an earlier message from the group accused the government of reneging on the agreement.

Foreign ministry spokesman Muhammad Faisal on Thursday denied media reports that Bibi had left the country, telling AFP: "She is in Pakistan".

Intelligence sources also told AFP that she had not left the country.

An order for her release arrived Wednesday at the jail in Multan where she was held, 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, politicians and religious figures.

Pope Benedict XVI called for her release in 2010, while his successor, Pope Francis, met her daughter in 2015.

- Incendiary charge -

Bibi's husband Ashiq Masih has appealed for Britain or the United States to grant the family asylum and several governments including those of Italy and France have offered to help.

Her lawyer fled to the Netherlands on Saturday under threat to his life.

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 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 the country in the wake of the ruling, with club-wielding protesters blocking Islamabad's main highway and barricading roads in Karachi and Lahore.

One resident in Multan, Rizwan Khan, told AFP that Bibi would not be safe wherever she went, while another, Qari Muneer, said the decision should be reversed and called for her to receive "strict punishment".