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Politics Asia Bibi, Pakistani Christian woman cleared of blasphemy charges, arrives in Canada

In this November, 2010, file photo, Asia Bibi listens to officials at a prison near Lahore, Pakistan.

/The Associated Press

A Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row before being acquitted of blasphemy charges last year has found refuge in Canada.

Saiful Malook, Asia Bibi’s lawyer, confirmed to The Globe and Mail that his client had arrived in Canada on Tuesday, but declined to say where she landed. Ms. Bibi’s arrival comes after a months-long effort to leave Pakistan, where she faced death threats from Islamists who rejected a Pakistani Supreme Court verdict that overturned blasphemy charges against her.

“She’s already in Canada,” Mr. Malook said. “I think she will be able to enjoy her life now.”

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Last November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa was in talks with Pakistan about helping Ms. Bibi, whose two daughters live in Canada. Mr. Malook said he didn’t know why it had taken so long for her to be able to leave the country.

“You’d have to ask that to the Prime Minister of Pakistan,” Mr. Malook said.

There has been no official reaction from the Pakistani government, although local media have reported confirmations about Ms. Bibi’s departure from unnamed government officials. The Pakistani High Commission in Ottawa declined to comment.

Opinion: Canada has helped Muslims thrive - and we must extend the same welcome for Asia Bibi

In a statement Wednesday, a Canadian government spokesperson said Global Affairs Canada had no comment on the matter.

Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, said he has been in touch with Ms. Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih. He said Mr. Masih came to Canada with his wife.

Ms. Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2009 after a dispute with two fellow farm workers, who refused to drink from the same water container as a Christian. The farm workers said Ms. Bibi insulted Islam, a crime punishable by death in Pakistan, and she was charged with blasphemy, despite denying the accusation.

Ms. Bibi was being held in an undisclosed location in Pakistan with armed security protection since the Supreme Court overturned her conviction and she was released last October.

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Her trial brought international attention to Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.

Ms. Bibi’s release from prison worsened tensions between religious groups within Pakistan, where blasphemy cases are extremely sensitive among the majority-Muslim population. Thousands of protesters took to the streets in major cities across the country denouncing Ms. Bibi’s acquittal in 2018.

In 2011, her case reportedly sparked the high-profile assassination of Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populated province. Mr. Taseer was gunned down in Islamabad by his own bodyguard, who said it was his religious duty to kill the politician because of his vocal support for Ms. Bibi and opposition to Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws.

Pakistan’s Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was also killed in 2011, allegedly over his support for Ms. Bibi, in an assassination that he had predicted in a video address later released to media. Mr. Bhatti was the only Christian member of the cabinet at the time.

The National Commission for Justice and Peace in Pakistan recorded that there had been more than 1,300 people accused of offences related to religion since 1987. Saroop Ijaz, a Human Rights Watch lawyer in Pakistan, said the country’s blasphemy law is used to silence the most marginalized, such as Ms. Bibi.

“She was a poor, rural, Christian woman in Pakistan. She was disenfranchised in multiple ways," Mr. Ijaz said. “This case should highlight the plight of hundreds, if not thousands, of Pakistanis who have faced these charges.”

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Last year, the Committee of Progressive Pakistani Canadians wrote to Mr. Trudeau asking him to offer Ms. Bibi and her family asylum in Canada. Omar Latif, the committee member who penned the letter, said Ms. Bibi’s arrival in Canada is “bittersweet news."

“[It’s] bitter that she couldn’t live in her own homeland free of persecution and discrimination … but happy also that she will now be able to live free of that fear."

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the news that Ms. Bibi had been reunited with her family. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who met with Mr. Pompeo on Wednesday to talk about the persecution of Christians around the world, tweeted her release was “fantastic news."

Salmaan Farooqui is a freelance writer

With reports from The Associated Press

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