By Asif Shahzad
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan on Thursday provided its first official confirmation that Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who spent eight years on death row falsely charged with blasphemy, had left the country more than six months after being acquitted by the Supreme Court.
The case created an international furore in October, after her release prompted days of rioting and demands for her death from hardline Islamists who rejected the outcome and warned Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government not to let her leave.
“Asia Bibi has left Pakistan of her free will,” foreign office spokesman Mohammad Faisal told reporters in Islamabad, the capital. “She is a free person and left of her own free will.”
Faisal did not confirm media reports that she had joined family members in Canada, however.
On Wednesday, Bibi’s lawyer Saif-ul-Malook said she had left for Canada to unite with her daughters, who were believed to have already taken asylum there but Canadian authorities have not confirmed this.
In November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada was in talks with Pakistan about helping Bibi. This week, Canada said it had no comment on the matter, however.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court in January upheld an earlier verdict to free Bibi, but officials have worried that her sudden departure could trigger further riots.
Islamists have been criticising the government and the military for caving in to what they call pressure from the West.
Bibi’s departure is a Western conspiracy against Islam, a hardline extremist party, Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, which has made blasphemy a rallying cry, said in a statement on Wednesday.
The farm worker and mother of five was convicted in 2010 of making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbours working in the fields with her objected to Bibi’s drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.
Two Pakistani politicians who sought to help her were assassinated, including Punjab province governor Salman Taseer, who was shot by his own bodyguard.
Any insult to Islam or the Prophet Muhammad carries a death sentence in Pakistan, although no one has been executed in decades.
Blasphemy is such a sensitive issue that a mere accusation can result in mob lynching. At least 67 people have been killed over unproven blasphemy accusations since 1990, human rights groups say.
The blasphemy laws are often invoked to settle personal scores and to intimidate liberal journalists, lawyers and politicians.
(Writing by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)