ISLAMABAD (AP) — A Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy after spending eight years on death row in Pakistan, but who still faced death threats from Islamic extremists upon her release, flew to Canada on Wednesday to join her daughters, Pakistani officials and others involved in the case said.
Aasia Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2009 after a quarrel with two fellow farmworkers, who refused to drink from the same water container as a Christian. Five days later, the women said Bibi had insulted Islam, a crime punishable by death. Bibi was charged with blasphemy despite repeatedly denying the accusation. The Supreme Court overturned her conviction last year, and she had been in protective custody since then.
Islamic extremists have rioted over the case and threatened to kill Bibi. Even as word of her departure from Pakistan became known, the hard-line Tehree-e-Labbaik Party, whose single-point agenda is defending the controversial blasphemy law, threatened protests. The same party, whose leaders including firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi are in jail, also urged the overthrow of the government following Bibi's acquittal. Rizvi's bail hearing is May 13.
A close friend of Bibi confirmed that she had left the country. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. Bibi's lawyer, Saif-ul Malook, said Bibi had already arrived in Canada and officials in Pakistan's interior and foreign ministries also confirmed her departure. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
"Obviously there are sensitive privacy and security issues on this and unfortunately I can't comment on this at this time," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa as he prepared to meet legislators Wednesday.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement welcoming news of her departure, which was cloaked in secrecy.
"Asia Bibi is now free, and we wish her and her family all the best following their reunification," the statement said. "The United States uniformly opposes blasphemy laws anywhere in the world, as they jeopardize the exercise of fundamental freedoms."
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted his pleasure at Bibi's departure.
"Fantastic news that Asia Bibi appears to have left Pakistan safely," he tweeted, adding that he was about to meet U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo "to talk about persecution of Christians around the world."
The case has brought international attention to Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, which carries an automatic death penalty. The mere suspicion of blasphemy against Islam is enough to ignite mob lynchings in the country. Blasphemy allegations have also been used to intimidate religious minorities and to settle scores.
Radical Islamists have made the punishment of blasphemy a major rallying cry, bringing tens of thousands into the streets and paralyzing major cities. The Tehreek-e Labbaik party won three seats in last year's provincial election on an agenda of defending the blasphemy law.
The reluctance of some local and foreign officials to speak openly of Bibi's departure may reflect fears of igniting more violence.
Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province, was shot and killed by one of his guards in 2011 for defending Bibi and criticizing the misuse of the blasphemy law. The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was celebrated as a martyr by hard-liners since being hanged for the killing, with millions visiting a shrine set up for him near Islamabad.
Even Punjab's information minister made a pilgrimage to his shrine, generating a public outcry.
Pakistan's minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated later in 2011, also after demanding justice for Bibi.
Taseer's son Shaan, who spoke Wednesday to The Associated Press from Canada, said the fight against extremism is "the most important battle of our time."
He said Bibi's departure was reason to celebrate, but he said there are hundreds more people languishing in Pakistani jails on charges of blasphemy, including university professor Janaid Hafiz, who has been in jail since 2013 for allegedly blasphemous posts on Facebook, which he denies.
"It is a great day, a great moment but let's not forget the 200 other Aasia Bibi's in jail today on charges of blasphemy," Shaan Taseer said. "These are the people on the front line. ... These are the soldiers against extremism. They are facing the enemy up close and personal."
Prime Minister Imran Khan has vowed not to be intimidated by the rioters, saying the rule of law would decide Bibi's fate. Still, she was denied permission to leave the country for several months after her acquittal until sentiments cooled.
Bibi's friend, who last spoke to her on Tuesday, said Bibi and her husband Ashiq Masih spent the last several weeks getting their documents in order. She received her passport last Wednesday, he said. He said she longed to see her daughters, with whom she spoke daily from her secure location, protected by Pakistani security forces.
On Wednesday, Taseer posted a video of Bibi's daughter's farewell message to her mother when they left Pakistan for Canada last year. Taseer said he waited until Bibi was safely out of Pakistan before posting the video.
"Their message was one of no regrets, no bitterness, just love and gratitude for all," he said. "It takes very special people to have been through such ordeals and to come out with a heart full of love."
A three-judge Supreme Court panel in January cleared Bibi's final legal hurdle when they ruled there was no compelling reason to overturn the court's earlier acquittal. The judges accused those who accused Bibi with blasphemy of committing perjury, but said they would not be tried because of the sensitivity of the case. The judges upheld the blasphemy law.
Associated Press writer Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Rob Gillies in Toronto and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.