Asia Bibi: Pakistani Christian woman in limbo after blasphemy verdict

Islamabad (AFP) –


A week after being freed from jail, Asia Bibi -- a Pakistani Christian woman on death row for eight years for blasphemy -- remains in limbo, with negotiations apparently under way to allow her to leave the country despite objections from Islamist hardliners demanding her execution.

Since the Supreme Court overturned Bibi's conviction last month, Pakistan has been rattled by violent protests from Islamists calling for her beheading, for mutiny in the armed forces and for the murder of the country's top judges.

Blasphemy is a massively inflammatory issue in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam and Prophet Mohammed can lead to lynchings and murders.

Earlier this month, the government struck a deal with the demonstrators after days of street protests saw large swathes of the country paralysed.

But questions remain over Bibi's whereabouts, the court's decision, and how hardliners may react to further developments.

Here's a brief rundown of where things stand and what might happen next.

Where is Bibi?

Rumours are rife in Pakistan that she has already left the country, with fake reports claiming she met with Pope Francis in the Vatican.

AFP has debunked the reports of Bibi meeting the pontiff.

The Pakistani government has repeatedly stated that Bibi is being held in a secure location in Pakistan after being released from a prison in central Multan last week, though her exact whereabouts are unknown.

She is not being allowed to leave the country as her case is subjected to a final review.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi reiterated the government's position again in Islamabad on Wednesday, saying: "We have clarified earlier and we clarify it again. She has not gone abroad. She is here. There is no controversy."

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan initially spoke forcefully against the protests, and vowed to confront any violence.

Since then he has stayed largely quiet about Bibi's fate.

Is the legal process over?

No, the ruling from the Supreme Court is in the process of being reviewed following a petition request.

The petition essentially checks to see if any procedural or clerical errors were made by the court during its final ruling.

If there were not, then the decision will stand. The chances of the apex court's acquittal being overturned are slim, according to Bibi's lawyer.

Where will she go next?

No one knows. However, it does appear that a deal may be in the works to move Bibi out of the country.

Earlier this week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that his government was holding talks with Pakistan over potentially offering asylum.

"There is a delicate domestic context that we respect which is why I don't want to say any more about that, but I will remind people Canada is a welcoming country," Trudeau told AFP.

The Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party, which led the violent demonstrations after Bibi's release, slammed Trudeau's comments.

"We strongly oppose even her release. And this is a view of millions of Pakistani Muslims," said TLP spokesman Ijaz Ashrafi.

Of course a big concern for any country that opens its doors to Bibi will be the potential blowback from hardliners in Pakistan.

Earlier this week, the Netherlands embassy pulled staff members from Pakistan over persistent threats, reportedly from hardliners angry over anti-Islam tweets by the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders.

Is Pakistan happy to let her go?

Yes and no. Hardline Islamist groups are continuing to hold sporadic, albeit peaceful, rallies across the country and calling for Bibi's execution.

The TLP has also vowed to return to the streets if Bibi leaves the country.

Others have called for calm. In an open letter published over the weekend, prominent religious scholar Mufti Rafi Usmani argued that the Supreme Court's decision following the review must be respected.

"The verdict of the bench considering the review petition would be final and has to be accepted wholeheartedly", wrote Usmani in the letter published in the English-language daily 'The News'.