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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 laboring 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.
#AsiaBibi has left the prison and has been transferred to a safe place! I thank the Pakistani authorities. I look forward meeting her and her family, in the European Parliament as soon as possible.
— Antonio Tajani (@EP_President) November 7, 2018
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.
Sources told media 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.”
Thousands of protestors mainly belonging to the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) poured onto the streets in protest after a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court overturned Asia Bibi’s conviction on October 31.
The protestors blockaded major cities to demand her immediate execution, in a three-day stand-off that ended when the government agreed to allow a review of the ruling and put her name on the no-fly list.
However, Minister of State for Interior Shehryar Afridi told Voice of America earlier in the day that until Bibi is convicted or there is a judicial order, and her name cannot be placed on the Exit Control List (ECL).
“Every Pakistani, no matter their religion, is the responsibility of the government and no one can be given a licence to play with someone’s life or property,” he added. “Aasia Bibi and her family have been provided complete security.”
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.
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.
Sul caso di #AsiaBibi stiamo lavorando con discrezione e attenzione, insieme ad altri Paesi occidentali.
Farò tutto quanto umanamente possibile per garantire un futuro a questa ragazza.
👉Live Replay > https://t.co/WATQMcl60o @rtl1025 #nonstopnews pic.twitter.com/eOyxmg9VYx
— Matteo Salvini (@matteosalvinimi) November 6, 2018
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.