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World & Nation

Pakistani Christian woman wrongly convicted of blasphemy flees to Canada, lawyer says

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A supporter of a Pakistani Islamist party stands on an image of Christian woman Asia Bibi during a protest against her acquittal of blasphemy charges in November 2018.
(Aamir Qureshi / AFP/Getty Images)

Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row for a blasphemy conviction before she was exonerated last year, has fled to Canada and reunited with her four children, her lawyer said Wednesday.

“She left Pakistan last night and has safely landed at Canada, where she is with her family,” lawyer Saiful Malook told The Times.

Malook said Bibi and her husband, Ashiq Masih, left Pakistan together. Their children had fled to Canada earlier for security reasons. Lawyers and Pakistani authorities were withholding details of the family’s new location to protect them, they said.

“It is a big day for Asia Bibi and for me,” Malook said. “Justice has been dispensed. It was not an easy journey for her. Eight dreadful years in prison with hardly a hope to come out.”

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Bibi had been held in protective custody since October 2018, when Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned a blasphemy conviction for which she had been sentenced to death in 2010.

The milestone Supreme Court decision marked a modest victory for religious pluralism in Muslim-majority Pakistan — and was met with nationwide protests by hard-line Islamist groups.

The Pakistani government held Bibi for her safety in an undisclosed location after Islamist groups threatened to kill her.

A senior official in Pakistan’s foreign ministry confirmed that Bibi left Pakistan on Tuesday night.

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“She was a free citizen after the Supreme Court acquitted her,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under diplomatic protocol. “She left Pakistan on her free will.”

Bibi, who is from a village about 50 miles west of the city of Lahore, was a farm laborer who got into an argument in 2009 with two Muslim women who objected to her drinking water from the same well. A mob later accused Bibi of insulting the prophet Muhammad, which equates to blasphemy and is a capital offense in Pakistan.

A local court sentenced her to death in 2010, although she maintained her innocence. She was the first woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan, and hers became one of the highest-profile capital cases in Pakistan’s history.

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In January 2011, the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his police guard after he met Bibi in jail and expressed support for her appeals.

The Supreme Court last October threw out Bibi’s conviction, saying there was “no evidence to support the charge.”

Blasphemy is a highly sensitive issue in Pakistan as even accusations can spark mob violence. In April 2017, Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old graduate student, was lynched by classmates on blasphemy accusations.

Human rights activists say blasphemy charges are frequently used to settle personal scores. In 1997, a judge who acquitted a blasphemy defendant was killed.

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Sahi is a special correspondent.


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