May 8, 2019 / 6:52 AM / 2 months ago

Christian woman who was on death row has left Pakistan, lawyer says

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row falsely charged with blasphemy has left the country, her lawyer and media said on Wednesday, more than six months after she was acquitted by Pakistan’s top court.

Asia Bibi’s lawyer said he understood she had departed for Canada.

Pakistani and Canadian officials have not officially commented on Bibi’s reported departure, perhaps due to the sensitive nature of her case.

Bibi’s release in October sparked rioting by hardline Islamists, who rejected the Supreme Court’s verdict and warned Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government that she must not be allowed to leave the country.

They also called for Bibi, who has been staying at an undisclosed location under tight security, to be killed.

“I have inquired within available channels, and according to them she has left for Canada,” Bibi’s lawyer, Saif Ul Malook, told Reuters.

Pakistani TV channels Geo and ARY, citing unidentified sources, also reported Bibi had left the country.

FILE PHOTO: Governor of the Punjab Province Salman Taseer is reflected as he speaks to the media after meeting with Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, at a jail in Sheikhupura, located in Pakistan's Punjab Province November 20, 2010. REUTERS/Asad Karim/File Photo

Pakistan’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment. A Canadian government spokeswoman said in an emailed statement: “Global Affairs Canada has no comment.”

In November, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country was in talks with Pakistan about helping Bibi, whose family are believed to be outside Pakistan. She is widely expected to seek asylum and diplomats say she will have no problems.

A statement from the U.S. State Department said it “welcomes the news that Asia Bibi has safely reunited with her family.”

“Asia Bibi is now free, and we wish her and her family all the best following their reunification. The United States uniformly opposes blasphemy laws anywhere in the world, as they jeopardize the exercise of fundamental freedoms,” the statement said.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court in January upheld its earlier verdict to free Bibi, but Pakistani officials have worried that her sudden departure could trigger further riots.

Islamists have criticising the government and the military for caving in to what they call pressure from the Western world.

Bibi, a farm worker and a mother of four, was convicted in 2010 of making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbours working in the fields with her objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

Saiful Mulook, lawyer of Christian woman Asia Bibi, addresses a news conference at the International Press Centre in The Hague, the Netherlands November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Eva Plevier

Her case has outraged Christians worldwide and has been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help her were assassinated, including Punjab province governor Salman Taseer, shot by his own bodyguard.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was “fantastic news that Asia Bibi appears to have left Pakistan safely.”

Hunt, who was due to discuss persecution of Christians with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, head of the Church of England, tweeted that Bibi’s freedom “shows that with concerted effort the right thing can happen.”

Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan in Islamabad and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jonathan Oatis

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