(Update: The claims from Asia Bibi's lawyer about her having left Pakistan were later found to be inaccurate.)
(CNSNews.com) – Asia Bibi, the Pakistan Christian on death row acquitted a week ago of blasphemy charges, was reportedly flown secretly out of the country overnight, in defiance of Islamic radicals who threatened to kill her.
Bibi was flown late Wednesday night from her prison in Multan, Punjab, to an airbase at the Islamabad international airport from where, according to her lawyer Saif Malook, she was flown out of the country with some family members.
Malook, who himself fled Pakistan at the weekend in fear of his life, spoke to wire services from the Netherlands, raising speculation that that country may be Asia Bibi’s destination as well.
Scheduled flights from Islamabad in the early hours of Thursday included two to Dubai, a hub which offers multiple connections to European destinations. Some unconfirmed reports suggested however that Asia Bibi was flown out on a “special flight,” from the Nur Khan airbase adjacent to the international airport.
There was no official confirmation of her departure, and several Pakistani news outlets quoted a Foreign Office spokesperson as saying there was no truth to reports she had left the country.
Queries sent to the Foreign Office brought no response by press time.
A spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad said Thursday he had no information to share on the case, but added that the embassy “continues to watch developments closely.”
European Parliament president Antonio Tajani said on Twitter that Asia Bibi “has left the prison and has been transferred to a safe place.” He said he looked forward to meeting her and her family at the European Parliament “as soon as possible.”
Earlier, Tajani had formally invited Asia Bibi’s husband and family to the European Parliament, urging the Pakistan authorities to facilitate their travel.
“If this is true, this is great news,” tweeted Tom Tugendhat, a British lawmaker who chairs the House of Commons’ foreign affairs select committee and has advocated for the woman’s protection. “I hope we only find out [that] it is, not where she has gone. She needs safety, not publicity now.”
Scores of Pakistanis have been killed by assailants or angry mobs over accusations of blaspheming Islam or Mohammed.
More than 40 people are believed to be on death row after blasphemy convictions. Asia Bibi, who was behind bars since 2009, was the first woman to be sentenced to death under the controversial laws.
Although the Supreme Court acquitted her and ordered her release on October 31, Asia Bibi remained incarcerated as Muslim zealots held mass protests across the country, blocking roads and demanding her execution, and calling for the judges to be killed too.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government last Friday struck a deal with the radicals, agreeing to look at legal provisions to place the Christian woman on an “exit control list” to bar her from leaving Pakistan, in return for an end to the protests. The government also agreed not to stand in the way of an application for the verdict to be reviewed, which had been lodged by a radical imam.
If the reports of her departure are confirmed, the hardliners will almost certainly resume and likely expand their protests. They have been led by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a three year-old party whose main platform has been combating “blasphemy.”
The group had earlier called the prime minister and the head of the military enemies of Islam, in response to the acquittal.
Other religious parties have also condemned the court decision. Even before the reported release, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an Islamic coalition that comprises the fourth largest party in Pakistan’s national parliament, had announced plans to hold a mass rally in Karachi.
Asia Bibi’s ordeal began on a summer day in 2009, when the then-44 year-old mother was working with a group of Muslim women in a berry field, and took a drink from a communal well during a rest break.
According to Anne-Isabelle Tollet, a French journalist who worked with Asia Bibi in prison on a book, when she dipped her cup back into the well, Muslim co-workers accused her of defiling the water, because she is a Christian.
Asia Bibi had replied, “I don’t believe that Mohammed would share the same view as you,” – and was then accused of blaspheming Islam’s prophet.
She was arrested, tried and convicted, and in November 2010 was sentenced to death by hanging.
Under Pakistan’s penal code, insulting Mohammed or desecrating the Qur’an are criminal offenses, punishable by death in the former case, or life imprisonment in the latter.
Asia Bibi’s drawn-out appeal eventually brought last week’s Supreme Court ruling, in which the judges said the case against her had been based on questionable evidence, with “material contradictions and inconsistent statements of the witnesses.”
Her admission of guilt, they found, had been made in front of a mob of angry Muslims “threatening to kill her.”
The judges set aside her conviction, and ordered her release.