Asia Bibi, 54, is technically a “free woman” – having had her death sentence for blasphemy thrown out by the Pakistani court – but she is far from safe enough to step foot in public, as religious extremists still call for her hanging.
A Pakistan official told Fox News Friday that – despite rampant rumors and reports indicating otherwise – Bibi remains under tight protection by authorities in Pakistan – as security steps to enable her to depart secretly are still being put in place.
A Canadian government source also told Fox News that reports Friday of Bibi having already arrived in Canada were false. Yet her exact whereabouts, believed to be in Pakistan, remains murky and shrouded in mixed messages.
“The reality is that very, very few people know where she is and next to no one will be told when she leaves. Her family might not even be told beforehand,” another source close to Bibi’s relatives said. “It has been done under extremism secrecy for her safety. It’s assumed that she will leave as soon as possible, but it isn’t that easy.”
The general consensus is that Bibi cannot leave Pakistan on a commercial flight, and any exit needs to be discreet and carefully planned. The Pakistan government, according to officials, is said to be “fully behind” helping her safely depart and one well-placed official said that they are waiting for the situation to “calm down” before making any moves.
Bibi, who was falsely accused of blasphemy almost 10 years ago and sentenced to death, was acquitted by Pakistan’s Supreme Court in October. The ruling ignited an eruption of protests by religious extremists, who took the streets burning her posters and calling for the judges to be killed. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Party, led by radical cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, pushed to have the ruling overturned.
Nonetheless, Pakistan’s Supreme Court upheld the acquittal this week and stated that Bibi was free to leave the country.
Bibi has since been living in an undisclosed location under the protection of Pakistani authorities.
Last year, Bibi’s immediate family was granted asylum in Canada and it is expected that she too will join them according to multiple sources closely connected to the case.
“The case of Asia Bibi is a priority for our government, and we are focused on ensuring the safety of her and her family. We are working with like-minded friends and allies on this issue. Canada is prepared to do everything we can to ensure the safety of Asia Bibi,” a representative for Canada’s Global Affairs told Fox News on Friday. “We urge the Government of Pakistan to take all necessary steps to keep her safe. Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, and must be fully respected.”
A German newspaper reported Friday, citing Bibi’s attorney Saif ul Malook, that she had quietly already left for Canada, But he walked back those statements in an interview with Fox News on Friday, stressing that her safety remains in jeopardy.
Malook too expressed concern for his safety, claiming that he is currently in Pakistan, having left the Netherlands to defend Bibi in 2014 – despite being told by authorities that, based on his visa status, once he left the country he would not be able to return.
TLP has since called for another round of protests over Bibi’s acquittal – chorusing for her to be hanged.
Bibi’s two daughters, as well as six other close relatives, are already in Canada, Malook said. He acknowledged that while the last time he saw her in-person was October, she is said to be very well-treated under protection and her health and wellbeing – having spent years languishing in jail with a plethora of physical and mental ailments – is of paramount importance to those guarding her.
Bibi, a farmworker, was arrested in 2009 after her Muslim neighbors refused to drink from the same cup she had touched and then complained to authorities that she had insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Bibi subsequently spent eight years on death row.
There are said to be over 20 Christians in Pakistan specifically charged with blasphemy, and Malook intends to take on more defendants.
“I’m proud to have represented her, she was a helpless and poor woman who had lost all hope,” he added. “And there are other poor women, just like her, who need my help.”
The US State Department declined to comment on Bibi’s location or asylum status.
However, several officials in Pakistan have said that Bibi’s landmark case has put an uncomfortable spotlight on the extremist elements.
“The protests against Bibi have been such a shame for our society. We seriously need de-radicalization programs in our country,” one insider noted.
Others also see a silver lining in that others on death-row for alleged blasphemy may soon receive a fair day in court, and that those making such false accusations may too finally be reprimanded in the court of law.
Wilson Chowdhry, Chairman of the activist organization British Pakistani Christian Association – who has long championed Bibi’s case – pointed that in the case of Bibi, it was the first time a chief justice had drawn attention to and publicly condemned those who make such false accusations.
“Historically, there has been resistance to hold false accusers to account. This is usually because of bribery or fear of repercussions. But the Supreme court this time has come out and said that the women who invented the blasphemy story against Asia should receive life imprisonment,” he said. “We are hopeful they are brought to justice because this serves as a deterrent to other would-be false accusers.”
Rimmel Mohydin, Amnesty International’s South Asia Regional Campaigner, stressed that while it is “highly unlikely that the complainants in Asia Bibi’s case will be prosecuted,” it at least might indicate that “strict action will be taken in the future.”
Human rights groups around the world praised the decision of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, highlighting that “truth and justice had prevailed.”