Christian woman cleared of blasphemy charges remains confined in Pakistan even though the government says she can leave.
Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy by Pakistan’s Supreme Court last year in a case that has become emblematic of fair trial concerns in such cases, has been granted asylum in Canada, her lawyer says.
Bibi, 53, flew out of Pakistan after being held for months in protective custody by Pakistani authorities following her acquittal, Saif-ul-Malook told Al Jazeera by telephone on Wednesday.
She joins her husband and two daughters, Malook said. “She has gone to Canada, she will live there now as she has been granted asylum by them,” he said.
Canadian authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the case.
Bibi spent eight years on death row after her arrest in the central village of Ithan Wali after an argument with two Muslim women who refused to drink water from the same vessel as her, due to her religion.
The women and a local cleric accused Bibi of having insulted Islam’s Prophet Muhammad during the altercation, a charge that she has consistently denied.
Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where the country’s strict laws prescribe a mandatory death penalty for some forms of the crime.
Increasingly, blasphemy allegations have led to murders and mob lynchings, with at least 74 people killed in such violence since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera tally.
Among those killed were Salman Taseer, then a provincial governor, and Shahbaz Bhatti, then a federal minister, in 2010. Both officials had stood up for Bibi when she was first accused of blasphemy.
In a landmark judgment acquitting Bibi, the Supreme Court noted in October that there were “glaring and stark” contradictions in the prosecution’s case against Bibi.
“[There is] the irresistible and unfortunate impression that all those concerned in the case with providing evidence and conducting investigation had taken upon themselves not to speak the truth of at least not to divulge the whole truth,” wrote Justice Asif Khosa, now Pakistan’s Supreme Court Chief Justice, in the verdict.
Bibi had been convicted and sentenced to death by a trial court in November 2010, with the Lahore High Court upholding her conviction on appeal four years later. Rights groups had long insisted there were numerous fair trial concerns in her case, as well as in blasphemy prosecutions generally.
The Supreme Court verdict prompted days of violent protests by the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a hardline religious group with widespread support that has long pushed for those accused of blasphemy to be executed or murdered extrajudicially.
Led by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the TLP blocked roads and major intersections across the country following Bibi’s acquittal in October.
Rizvi was arrested in November and charged with treason for leading the protests. Afzal Qadri, the cofounder of the TLP, released a statement last week apologising for the protests and promising not to engage in further political activity.
Rizvi, and scores of other TLP activists, remain in police custody, charged with hate speech and inciting violence.
Days after the verdict was announced, Bibi’s lawyer Malook sought refuge in the Netherlands, citing threats to his life for having represented her.
In February, Bibi told the Associated Press news agency through an intermediary that she was being held by Pakistani authorities in indefinite protective custody and that they would not let her leave the country.
On Tuesday, “the long running issue” of her departure from the country was resolved, her lawyer says, and Bibi is now safely in Canada and reunited with her family.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.