Woman acquitted of blasphemy leaving Pakistan as violence rises

ISLAMABAD — A Christian woman acquitted in Pakistan after eight years on death row for blasphemy plans to leave the country, her family said Thursday as radical Islamists mounted rallies for a second day against the verdict, blocking roads and burning tires in protest.

The developments followed a landmark move by Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday that overturned the 2010 conviction against Asia Bibi for insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. The charge of blasphemy carries the death penalty in this majority Muslim nation.

Bibi’s acquittal immediately raised fears of religious violence — and presented a challenge to the government of new Prime Minister Imran Khan who came to power this summer partly by pursuing the Islamist agenda. Khan warned Islamist protesters on Wednesday night not to “test the patience of the state.”

Bibi remained at an undisclosed location Thursday where the 54-year-old mother of five was being held for security reasons, awaiting her formal release, her brother, James Masih told The Associated Press.

Masih said his sister simply would not be safe in Pakistan.

“She has no other option and she will leave the country soon,” he said. Masih would not disclose the country of her destination but both France and Spain have offered asylum.

Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, had returned from Britain with their children in mid-October and was waiting for her to join them, the brother added.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 Islamists blocked a key road linking the capital, Islamabad with the garrison city of Rawalpindi on Thursday, demanding Bibi be publicly hanged. Authorities deployed paramilitary troops, signaling they could move in to clear the roads.

Hundreds also blocked another key motorway, linking Islamabad with major cities such as Lahore and Peshawar, chanting slogans against Bibi and demanding her execution.

Meanwhile, opposition lawmakers in parliament called Thursday for reforming the judicial system and Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law — so that innocents like Bibi wouldn’t spent years languishing in jail.

Hafiz Saeed, a radical cleric wanted by the United States, urged followers to hold rallies across Pakistan on Friday to condemn Bibi’s release. Saeed is the founder of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba group, which was blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people.

Protesters, rallied by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, also set up roadblocks and burned tires in the southern port city of Karachi while hundreds clashed Thursday with police in various parts of eastern Punjab province.

Many parents kept their children from school, fearing more violence.

The Islamists also called for the killing of the three judges, including Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, who acquitted Bibi.

The three are on the hit list of Rizvi’s Tehreek-e-Labbaik party, which has demanded a public execution for Bibi. Rizvi has managed to turn out tens of thousands of supporters in the past, often forcing authorities to bow to his demands on religious matters.

Tehreek-e-Labbaik claimed Thursday that two of its supporters were killed by police fire during overnight clashes in Karachi. No government official could immediately confirm any casualties.

In his televised speech, Prime Minister Khan warned the Islamists: “Let me make it very clear to you that the state will fulfil its responsibility.”

Bibi’s lawyer, Saiful Malook, has gone into hiding as the extremists had threatened his life as well.

On Wednesday, cleric Afzal Qadri, with Rizvi by his side, urged a crowd of supporters outside the Punjab provincial parliament in the city of Lahore to revolt against army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and overthrow Khan’s government.

Bibi’s acquittal, however, has been seen as a hopeful sign by Christians in Pakistan, where the mere rumor of blasphemy can spark lynchings. Religious minorities, who have been repeatedly targeted by extremists, fear the law because it is often used to settle scores and to pressure minorities.

In 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was shot and killed by one of his guards for defending Bibi and criticizing the misuse of the blasphemy law. The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was hanged for the crime, but later was hailed by religious hard-liners as a martyr, with millions visiting a shrine set up for him near Islamabad.

Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister for minorities was also killed in 2011 after he demanded justice for Bibi.

Bibi was arrested in 2009 after she was accused of blasphemy following a quarrel with two fellow female farm workers who refused to drink from a water container used by a Christian. A few days later, a mob accused her of insulting Islam’s prophet, leading to her 2010 conviction.

Bibi’s family has always maintained her innocence and says she never insulted the prophet.

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