Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row for blasphemy before being acquitted last week, was released from jail Wednesday night.
But with Islamic fundamentalists calling for her murder, a death sentence still hangs over her as long as she remains in Pakistan.
Despite her conviction being overturned, the life of the mother-of-five depends on her gaining asylum in the West, but outraged hardliners want her banned from leaving Pakistan, and have vowed to paralyze the country is she is allowed to flee.
Bibi’s acquittal by Pakistan’s Supreme Court last week enraged Islamic fundamentalists, who held days of mass demonstrations calling for her to be hanged — despite the country’s top court having found the allegation of blasphemy unfounded. The threat of violence against her prompted authorities to keep her in jail an extra week for her safety.
Pakistani officials Thursday said Bibi was being held in a secure location in Islamabad due to the threats against her, and denied media reports she had left the country.
The question of Bibi’s next step presents a dilemma for Pakistan’s government. Staying in Pakistan would likely be a death sentence — a predicament which has reportedly led a number of Western governments to offer her and her family asylum.
If she is allowed to leave, the government will face the wrath of hardliners, such as the Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP). The party has called for her to be placed on an “exit control list” stopping her from leaving.
The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan was only able to put an end to days of crippling protests last week by offering concessions, including releasing all those detained in the demonstrations. The government also agreed not to challenge the TLP’s petition for a review of the Supreme Court decision, nor the TLP’s application to have Bibi added to the exit control list.
Government spokesman Mohammad Faisal said Thursday that Bibi was not currently on the list, and was free to leave the country once the review application was ruled on.
“Her writ is in court, when that is decided, Asia Bibi can go anywhere she wants to,” he said. “She is a free national ... if she wants to go abroad, no harm in it.”
The TLP has been further angered by Bibi’s release from prison, claiming Thursday that it breached the its agreement with the government. “The rulers have showed their dishonesty,” spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters.
Bibi, a farm laborer from Punjab province, was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 for having allegedly insulted Islam during an argument with her Muslim neighbors — a charge she has always denied.
Insulting the Prophet Mohammed is punishable with death under Pakistani law, although no one has ever been executed in the country for blasphemy. However, scores of people have been killed by vigilantes for alleged blasphemy.
The threat against Bibi extends to those who advocate on her behalf. Her lawyer, Saif-ul-Mulook, has been forced to flee the country to the Netherlands, where the government said Thursday he had been granted temporary asylum.
A TLP leader has also called for the three judges who overturned Bibi’s sentence to be killed. Her long-running case has also led to the 2011 assassinations of two Pakistani politicians who had spoken out in her support. The assassin in one of the killings, who was subsequently executed, is now viewed as a martyr by the TLP.
Cover image: Pakistani protesters shout slogans against Asia Bibi, a Christian woman facing death sentence for blasphemy, at a protest in Karachi on October 13, 2016. (ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images)