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Thursday Nov 08 2018

Asia Bibi leaves jail, flies out of Multan

Pakistani police stand outside the central jail where Asia Bibi, a Christian woman charged with blasphemy, was held in Multan, Pakistan, November 7, 2018. AFP/S.S. Mirza

MULTAN: Asia Bibi, a Pakistani-Christian woman who spent eight years on death row but was acquitted by the Supreme Court last week in a blasphemy case against her, was freed from the prison here in the city, her lawyer said Wednesday night.

Bibi, a mother of five, is believed to have already flown out of the city of Multan where she was being held in a women's prison, heading for an unknown destination, the lawyer added.

Allegations against Bibi, 53, dated back to June 2009 when she was labouring in a field and a row broke out with some Muslim women who had alleged that she committed blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).

Bibi was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death in 2010 despite her advocates maintaining her innocence and insisting the accusers held grudges against her.

Her release comes a week after her acquittal in a landmark case that triggered angry protests in the country and following appeals from her husband, Ashiq Masih, for Britain or the United States to grant the family asylum.

Saif-ul-Mulook, her lawyer, fled to the Netherlands on Saturday under threat to his life.

Bibi's conviction was overturned by the country's highest court on October 31 but she had remained in prison as the government negotiated with protesters from religious groups — led by the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) — who blockaded major cities and demanded her immediate execution.

Riots broke out in major cities across the country in the wake of the ruling, with club-wielding protesters barricading roads and highways in Islamabad, Karachi, and Lahore. Enraged masses had blocked several routes across the country for two days, while at some places they had also set fire to vehicles.

The demonstrations saw the closure of schools, colleges, and universities, as well as the cancellation of examinations. In a statement, the TLP had termed Bibi's release "against the government agreement".

"The entire atmosphere of Pakistan is in pain and grief," it had said.

'A safe place'

A portrait of Asia Bibi, who had been on death row in Pakistan since 2010, at an unknown location. Handout photo released to AFP via the UK charity British Pakistani Christian Association on November 1, 2018. AFP/British Pakistani Christian Association/Files

Sources told Geo News that the jail authorities had already received documents pertaining to her release earlier in the day, after which she was freed.

"She has been freed," 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."

According to a civil aviation official, the aircraft that collected Bibi from jail would be required to land in Islamabad but it was unclear if she may have had a connecting flight.

An order for her release arrived Wednesday at the jail in Multan where she was held, a prison official told AFP.

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.

"Asia Bibi has left the prison and has been transferred to a safe place!" tweeted Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament.

On the other hand, three security officials told Reuters early Thursday that Bibi was released from the Multan prison. She was flown to the airport near Islamabad but was in protective custody because of threats to her life, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

'How can we place their name on ECL?'

Bibi has consistently denied the charges, and her prosecution rallied international rights groups, politician, and religious figures. Even Pope Benedict XVI had called for her release in 2010, while his successor, Pope Francis, met her daughter in 2015.

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

Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini tweeted: "I will do everything humanly possible to guarantee this young woman's future."

On November 2, two days following the protests, the government had agreed in a deal with the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) — one of the most vocal groups in the protests — to impose a travel ban on Bibi, and not to challenge an appeal in the Supreme Court.

The agreement further stated that due process will be followed immediately to include the name of Asia Bibi in the Exit Control List (ECL), something Shehryar Afridi, the minister of state for the interior, had assured on Wednesday would not happen until she is proven guilty.

“The government will uphold whatever the Supreme Court decides,” Afridi had said. “If someone cannot be proven guilty then how can we place their name on ECL? There can be no question about that.”

The protests, nevertheless, were called off subsequently.

Additional reporting by Ahmad Buzdar

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