Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi flees to Canada after blasphemy saga

Ottawa (AFP) - Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who escaped a death sentence for blasphemy, began a new life in Canada Wednesday following a decade-long saga that sparked violent unrest and spotlighted religious extremism in her home country.

Neither Islamabad nor Ottawa would confirm her whereabouts, but a Canadian source told AFP: "She is now in Canada" and has reunited with her two daughters.

Earlier, Bibi's lawyer Saif ul Mulook and multiple security sources in Pakistan speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP that Bibi had gone to Canada, with another government source adding she had left "of her own free will."

One of Bibi's daughters, Esham Ashiq, spoke to AFP last October of her hopes of being reunited with her mother, saying she would "thank God that he has got her released."

A laborer from central Punjab province and minority Christian, Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and sent to death row, but acquitted on appeal last year.

Her case swiftly became infamous, drawing worldwide attention to religious extremism in deeply conservative Pakistan where blasphemy carries a maximum penalty of death.

It is an incendiary issue in the Muslim-majority country, and mere allegations of insulting Islam have sparked lynchings and vigilante violence in the past.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declined to confirm Bibi's arrival in Canada, citing privacy and security issues, but his British counterpart Theresa May appeared to confirm she had been granted Canadian asylum.

"Canada made this offer and we thought it was right and appropriate," May said on the floor of the House of Commons.

Short of confirming her whereabouts, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said Washington "welcomes the news that Asia Bibi has safely reunited with her family."

"The United States uniformly opposes blasphemy laws anywhere in the world, as they jeopardize the exercise of fundamental freedoms," he said.

- Violent protests -

Bibi has technically been free to leave Pakistan since January, when the Supreme Court dismissed a legal challenge to her October acquittal.

Since then, she is widely believed to have been held in protective custody by authorities as she awaited an asylum deal abroad.

In November, Trudeau said Ottawa was holding talks with Pakistan about bringing Bibi to Canada, which he said is "a welcoming country."

"It is a great relief that this shameful ordeal has finally come to an end and Asia Bibi and her family are safe," said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director at Amnesty International.

"She should never have been imprisoned in the first place, let alone endure the constant threats to her life. This case horrifyingly illustrates the dangers of Pakistan's blasphemy laws and the urgent need to repeal them."

Many blasphemy cases in Pakistan see Muslims accusing Muslims, but rights activists have warned that religious minorities -- particularly Christians -- are often caught in the crossfire, with accusations used to settle personal scores.

Two politicians have been assassinated in connection with Bibi's case, and she spent much of her prison time in solitary confinement over fears she could be attacked by a guard or another prisoner.

Islamist groups have regularly called for her to be executed, and activists have warned she would not be safe in Pakistan.

Following Bibi's acquittal in October, the country was gripped for days by violent protests led by the hardline group Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), which called for mutiny in the armed forces and assassination of the country's top judges for acquitting her.

In the wake of the nationwide protests, TLP's leaders -- who paralysed the capital Islamabad for weeks in 2017 with an anti-blasphemy sit-in -- were rounded up in a government crackdown and remain in detention.

Christians -- who make up around two percent of the population -- occupy one of the lowest rungs in class-obsessed Pakistani society, largely living in slums and working menial jobs as street sweepers, cleaners and cooks.


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