Asia Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman at the centre of a decade-long blasphemy row that sparked violent unrest and spotlighted religious extremism, left her home country on Wednesday and is believed to be in Canada.
Islamabad made no formal statement and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to confirm her arrival, citing privacy and security issues.
Bibi’s lawyer Saif ul Mulook and multiple security sources in Pakistan speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP that Bibi had gone to Canada, with another government source adding she had left “of her own free will”.
A labourer from central Punjab province and minority Christian, Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and sent to death row, but acquitted on appeal last year.
Her case swiftly became the most infamous in Pakistan, drawing worldwide attention to religious extremism in the country and raising eyebrows among Pakistan’s allies.
“The United States welcomes the news that Asia Bibi has safely reunited with her family,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
“The United States uniformly opposes blasphemy laws anywhere in the world, as they jeopardize the exercise of fundamental freedoms.”
Speaking on the floor of the House of Commons on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May appeared to confirm that Canada was Bibi’s destination.
“Canada made this offer and we thought it was right and appropriate that we supported the offer that Canada had made,” May said.
Blasphemy carries a maximum death penalty under Pakistan’s penal code.
It is an incendiary issue in the Muslim-majority country, and mere allegations of insulting Islam have sparked lynchings and vigilante violence in the past.
“It is a great relief that this shameful ordeal has finally come to an end and Asia Bibi and her family are safe,” said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director at Amnesty International.
“She should never have been imprisoned in the first place, let alone endure the constant threats to her life. This case horrifyingly illustrates the dangers of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the urgent need to repeal them.”
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Bibi has technically been free to leave Pakistan since January, when the Supreme Court dismissed a legal challenge to her October acquittal.
Since then, she is widely believed to have been held in protective custody by authorities as she awaited an asylum deal abroad.
In November, Trudeau said Ottawa was holding talks with Pakistan about bringing her to Canada, which he said is “a welcoming country”.
Many blasphemy cases in Pakistan see Muslims accusing Muslims, but rights activists have warned that religious minorities — particularly Christians — are often caught in the crossfire, with such accusations used to settle personal scores.
Two politicians have been assassinated in connection with Bibi’s case, and she spent much of her prison time in solitary confinement over fears she could be attacked by a guard or another prisoner.
Islamist groups have regularly called for her to be executed, and activists have warned that she would not be safe in Pakistan.
Following Bibi’s acquittal in October, the country was gripped for days by violent protests led by the hardline group Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), which called for mutiny in the armed forces and assassination of the country’s top judges for acquitting her.
In the wake of the nationwide protests, TLP’s leaders — who paralysed the capital Islamabad for weeks in 2017 with an anti-blasphemy sit-in — were rounded up in a government crackdown months ago and remain in detention.
Christians — who make up around two percent of the population — occupy one of the lowest rungs in class-obsessed Pakistani society, largely living in slums and working menial jobs as street sweepers, cleaners and cooks.