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 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 Bibi’s family this year, saying he prayed for her. Italy said on Tuesday it would try to help Bibi, who is Catholic, to leave Pakistan.
Muahmmad Faisal, spokesman for Pakistan foreign ministry, on Thursday morning denied media reports Bibi has been flown out of country.
“She is in Pakistan,” Faisal told Reuters via the WhatsApp messaging service.
Insulting Islam’s Prophet Mohammad carries a mandatory death penalty in Pakistan, which is about 95 percent Muslim and has among the harshest blasphemy laws in the world.
No executions for blasphemy have been carried out in Pakistan but enraged mobs sometimes kill people accused of blasphemy.
Christians make up about 2 percent of the population.
Three security officials told Reuters early on Thursday that Bibi had been released from a prison in Multan, a city in the south of Punjab province.
She was flown to the airport near the capital, Islamabad, and 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 spokesman 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 spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters.
Under the deal, the government said it would not block a petition to the Supreme Court to review Bibi’s acquittal in light of sharia, Islamic religious law, the TLP said.
It also said the government promised to work to ensure Bibi could not leave the country.
If the government allows Bibi to leave, it would likely face more paralysing protests from the TLP and other Islamist parties.