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Pakistan caves to Islamist Asia Bibi demands

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Fr Robert McCulloch
Father Robert McCulloch, procurator general of the Missionary Society of St. Columban, attends a seminar on safeguarding children in Rome in this March 23, 2017, file photo. Father McCulloch was involved in negotiations with Pakistani officials to obtain the release of Asia Bibi, a Catholic who was acquitted of blasphemy on Oct. 31 by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. PHOTO: CNS/Paul Haring

Following days of massive country-wide protests, Pakistan’s Government has caved in to demands to prevent Asia Bibi from leaving the country and to keep her in prison.

The government also agreed not to oppose a court petition seeking to have her Supreme Court acquittal reversed.

The fundamentalist reaction against the decision to acquit Mrs Bibi had come from the TLP, an Islamic political party known for organising countrywide street power and large scale protests in opposition to any change in the blasphemy law of Pakistan.

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Bibi, a Catholic and a poor farmworker, was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010.

Protestors in Pakistan demand death for Asia Bibi
Men protest in Lahore, Pakistan, Oct. 31, after the Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Catholic accused of blasphemy. PHOTO: CNS/Rahat Dar, EPA

Days of rioting, blockades and protests by the TLP, which has repeatedly called for Asia Bibi’s execution, has cost Pakistan an estimated A$1.6 billion.

She was reported to be held in the same prison where two men tried to kill her last week, although she had been shifted from her windowless cell.

Although Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan initially slammed the actions by radical Islamists, the Pakistani Government later agreed to almost all the conditions demanded of it by the TLP over Ms Bibi in what was described by some analysts as an historic capitulation.

Mrs Bibi’s lawer Saiful Malook fled the country over the weekend because followers of hard-line TLP cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi had threatened to kill him as well as the judges who had acquitted Ms Bibi.

Asia Bibi
Asia Bibi, pictured in a 2010 file photo. PHOTO: CNS/Punjab Governor House handout via EPA

The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported that Mr Malook passed through Rome en route to Amsterdam. It said he would speak at a conference in Amsterdam next week before permanently relocating to London.

While Pakistan’s Supreme Court has rarely reversed decisions, a review could take years, prolonging Ms Bibi’s ordeal.

Her husband, Ashiq Masih, returned from Britain with their children in mid-October and was waiting for her release so that they could fly out of Pakistan.

France and Spain are among the countries which have offered asylum.

While Mrs Bibi is a Christian, the majority imprisoned under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are Muslims whose cases often emerge from family enmity, jealousy, business rivalry and other factors; human rights organisations have claimed for decades that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are regularly abused to settle vendettas.

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