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Pakistani Christian woman freed after blasphemy death sentence reversed

The release of Asia Bibi, a mother of five, prompted immediate anger from a hard-line Islamist party that has threatened to paralyse daily life countrywide with street protests if her acquittal is not reversed.

This file undated handout photo released to AFP on 1 November 2018 via the UK charity British Pakistani Christian Association shows a portrait of Asia Bibi, who had been on death row in Pakistan since 2010. Picture: AFP

ISLAMABAD/LAHORE - A Pakistani Christian woman has been freed from prison a week after the Supreme Court overturned her conviction and death sentence for blasphemy against Islam, and she is now at a secure location for fear of attacks on her, officials said on Thursday.

The release of Asia Bibi, a mother of five, prompted immediate anger from a hard-line Islamist party that has threatened to paralyse daily life countrywide with street protests if her acquittal is not reversed.

Bibi, 53, was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 over allegations she made derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbours objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim. She always denied having committed blasphemy.

The case has outraged Christians worldwide, and Pope Francis met with Bibi’s family earlier this year, saying he prayed for her. Italy said on Tuesday it will try to help Bibi, who is Catholic, to leave Pakistan.

Insulting Islam’s Prophet Mohammad carries a mandatory death penalty in Pakistan, which is about 95% Muslim and has among the harshest blasphemy laws in the world. Minority Christians make up about 2% of the population.

Three security officials told Reuters early on Thursday that Bibi had been released from a prison in Multan, a city in southern Punjab province.

She was flown to the airport near the capital, Islamabad, but was in protective custody because of threats to her life, said the three officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Bibi’s lawyer, who has fled Pakistan and this week sought asylum in the Netherlands, confirmed she was no longer in prison.

“All I can tell you is that she has been released,” lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook told Reuters by phone from the Netherlands.

A spokesperson for the hard-line Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) party, which took to the streets after the Supreme Court ruling, said her release violated a deal with the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan to end the protests.

“The TLP activists are agitated as the government has breached the agreement with our party. The rulers have showed their dishonesty,” party spokesperson Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters.

The government deal last week promised not to block a petition for the Supreme Court to review Bibi’s acquittal in light of Islamic sharia law, the TLP said. It also said the government promised to work to ensure Bibi could not leave the country.

If Pakistan’s government allows Bibi to leave, it could face more paralysing protests from the TLP and other Islamist parties.

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