Asia Bibi freed, her location unknown
A Christian woman has been freed from prison a week after the Supreme Court overturned her conviction and death sentence for committing blasphemy, and she is at a secure location in the country, officials said on Thursday.
Officials dismissed some media reports that Asia Bibi had been flown abroad, which would enrage hardliners who have been protesting against her release and calling for her to be banned from leaving. The release overnight of the mother of five prompted immediate anger from an Islamist party that has threatened to paralyse the country with street protests if her acquittal is not reversed.
Bibi, 53, was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 over allegations she made derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbours objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.
She always denied having committed blasphemy.
The case has outraged Christians worldwide, and Pope Francis met Bibi's family this year, saying he prayed for her. Italy said on Tuesday it would try to help Bibi, who is Catholic, to leave Pakistan.
In Rome, the Catholic aid agency Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) said Bibi has been able to see her husband in an undisclosed location. Their daughters were "close by" but had not yet seen their mother as of early afternoon, Pakistan time.
The agency, which arranged a meeting for Bibi's husband and daughter with Pope Francis at the Vatican this year, said the family was awaiting visas but declined to disclose from which country for security reasons. Security officials told Reuters early on Thursday that Bibi had been released from a prison in Multan, a city in the south of Punjab province. She was flown to Islamabad and was in protective custody because of threats to her life, said three officials.
Bibi's lawyer, who has fled Pakistan and this week sought asylum in the Netherlands, confirmed she was no longer in prison.
"All I can tell you is that she has been released," lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook told Reuters by phone from the Netherlands, where the government said on Thursday it had offered him temporary asylum.
A spokesman for the hard-line Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party, which took to the streets after the Supreme Court ruling, said her release violated a deal with the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan to end the protests.
"The TLP activists are agitated as the government has breached the agreement with our party. The rulers have showed their dishonesty," party spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi said.
Under the deal, the government said it would not block a petition to the Supreme Court to review Bibi's acquittal in light of Shariah, the TLP said. It also said the government promised to work to ensure Bibi could not leave the country.
If the government allows Bibi to leave, it would likely face more paralysing protests from the TLP and other religious parties.