A week after Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted her of blasphemy, a Christian woman who had been on death row for eight years was freed from detention Thursday, but her whereabouts are a closely guarded secret following demands by extremists that she be hanged in public.
The case of Aasia Bibi has become a political minefield for Prime Minister Imran Khan. He is trying to placate the Muslim extremists who have threatened to topple his government, while keeping the 54-year-old mother of five safe from a lynch mob and also finding a way to allow her to leave Pakistan without bringing rioters into the streets.
Bibi has been offered asylum by the European Parliament, which championed her case after she was convicted in 2010 under Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy law. There has been sharp worldwide criticism of the law, which remains popular in the Muslim majority country and carries the death penalty for insulting Islam but also has been used as a way to settle scores and pressure minorities.
Bibi was with her family under heavy security after being transferred to the Pakistani capital overnight from her detention facility in southern Punjab, triggering expectations of an imminent departure from the country.
For the moment, Bibi remained in Pakistan, according to two people close to her who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to endanger her. That was confirmed later Thursday by Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry.
Following her Oct. 31 acquittal by Pakistan’s Supreme Court, the hard-line Tehreek-e-Labbaik Party forced a nationwide shutdown as its supporters filled the streets for three days to protest the ruling. The rallies only dispersed after Khan’s government promised that a court would review a motion to challenge the acquittal and deny Bibi permission to leave Pakistan.
Khan, who came to power after elections last summer in part on an Islamist agenda, was immediately accused by critics of giving in to the extremists.
Bibi’s release, high-security transfer to Islamabad and her likely departure raised the possibility that Khan’s promises to the Islamists could have been an effort to buy time.
The government, however, has not openly declared that Bibi was free to leave.
Tehreek-e-Labbaik, in a video message that was circulated widely Thursday, said it received government assurances following Bibi’s relocation to Islamabad that she wouldn’t leave the country until the review petition was heard.
Khan, a former cricket star and playboy who has embraced religious conservatism before he ran for prime minister, is hamstrung by contradictions within his own government, according to Zahid Hussain, who has written two books on the rise of militancy in Pakistan.
“There are some within the party, senior members of the party, who are pampering religious extremists for the sake of votes, and some believe in the same kind of world view,” Hussain said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Bibi’s ordeal began on a blistering hot day in 2009 when she went to fetch water for herself and fellow farmworkers. An argument took place after two women refused to drink from the same container as Bibi, who is Roman Catholic.
The two women later said Bibi had insulted the Prophet Muhammad, and she was charged with blasphemy. She was put on trial, convicted and sentenced to death in 2010.
While her conviction was appealed, her case gained worldwide attention and focused international criticism on the blasphemy law. In announcing her acquittal last week, a three-judge panel of the Supreme Court upheld the law itself but said prosecutors had failed to prove Bibi had violated it.
European Parliament President Antonio Tajani invited Bibi and her family to Europe. In a letter, a copy of which was seen by the AP, Tajani told Bibi’s husband Ashiq Masih that the parliament is “extremely concerned for your safety as well as your family’s, due to the violence by extremist elements in Pakistan.”
The letter added to expectations that she and her family would leave for Europe, though their destination has not been confirmed. Spain and France have offered her asylum.
Speaking to the AP earlier this week in the Punjab capital of Lahore, Masih said he hasn’t slept much since his wife’s acquittal and the subsequent outrage by extremists. His initial joy quickly turned to sadness when he realized the ordeal was not over.
He said that he is consumed by fear every time his phone rings and haunted by the shouts of “Hang her!”
“Sometimes I pace on the rooftop, sometimes I walk on the road outside our home,” he said. “I look at the faces around me and I wonder if anyone is waiting to hurt us.”
Even the mere suggestion of blasphemy can whip mobs into a lynching frenzy in Pakistan. In 2011, the governor of Punjab province was killed by his own guard after he defended Bibi and criticized the blasphemy law. A year later, Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minorities and a Christian, was shot and killed.
For Aasia Bibi’s husband, leaving Pakistan is painful but remains a matter of life and death.
“We have no other choice but to leave,” he said. “I love Pakistan but I can’t live here.”
Even in Bibi’s home village of Aitta Wali — an impoverished farming community where animals and residents share tiny, sunbaked mud houses — there is still outrage over her acquittal, and its remaining three Christian families have fled.
“Our entire village swore on the Quran that she insulted the prophet but no one believes us and everyone believes her,” said Aman Ali, one of the villagers. “Before this, we liked the Christian families. We always got along. But now there is only anger.”
Some of that anger was directed at a visiting AP reporter, who was told by one resident: “Go. Just get out. Go.”
Muhammad Afzal Qadri, a leader in the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Party and a religious scholar, said he doesn’t regret calling for the deaths of the three judges who acquitted Bibi, or for calling on his followers to overthrow Khan’s government.
At his sprawling madrassa in the Punjab city of Gujrat, Qadri told the AP this week that he had the religious authority to declare a fatwa, or edict, demanding the judges be killed.
Pakistan is bound by Islamic injunctions, he said, adding that he was qualified to decide such matters. The West only seeks to undermine Pakistan’s Islamic traditions and culture, Qadri said.
Hussain, the author on Pakistani militancy, said the demonstrations over Bibi’s acquittal were an attempt to regain positions the extremists had lost in the July elections.
Another rally Thursday in the southern city of Karachi drew thousands. One religious leader, Fazlur Rehman, whose party was routed in the elections, said the “court of the masses” has rejected Bibi’s acquittal.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban insurgent group warned anyone who would commit blasphemy that “our daggers will cut your throat.”
Hussain said the extremists “are trying to mobilize people on this issue, creating more extremism. They have created a sense of fear in society, for anyone who disagrees with their view of Islam.”