ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Nearly a decade after a Pakistani Christian woman named Asia Bibi was accused of blasphemy during a dispute over a bucket of water, then condemned to death and imprisoned for eight years, she has been finally allowed to leave Pakistan and join her family in Canada, her attorney and Pakistani officials said Wednesday.
Bibi, a 51-year-old farmworker and mother of five, was acquitted of the capital crime six months ago by Pakistan’s Supreme Court, which overturned her original conviction for blasphemy. In January, the high court dismissed an appeal by religious groups, and officials declared she was free to leave.
Instead, she remained sequestered in safe houses while Islamist hard-liners protested her second acquittal, and some called for her to be hunted down and killed.
About two days ago, Bibi apparently was flown quietly to Canada, where her husband and two daughters fled last year, but no information was released until she was safely out of the country. Her attorney, Saif ul Malook, said Wednesday that she has reached Canada, and officials at the Foreign Ministry confirmed that she left Pakistan.
The tortuous odyssey of Bibi’s case, which triggered a cascade of violent events and controversy, drew unprecedented international attention to the fraught religious politics that deeply divide this vast, Muslim-majority nation of 209 million. To be merely accused of insulting the revered prophet Muhammad can lead to life in prison or mob lynching.
In the summer of 2009, Bibi was picking fruit in a hot field with a group of Muslim women when an argument broke out over whether they would drink from a water container she had brought. Angry words were exchanged, and the women accused her of insulting Islam. She was confronted by local leaders and imprisoned. The following year, she was convicted and sentenced to death.
Meanwhile, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, where she lived, visited Bibi in prison and began to speak up on her behalf, questioning the harsh treatment she had received. In January 2011, Taseer was fatally shot by his own bodyguard, 26-year-old Mumtaz Qadri, who confessed and said he had acted to defend the honor of the prophet.
Qadri was eventually hanged for murder, but he was lionized as a martyr by many Pakistanis, and a new anti-blasphemy movement among mainstream Sunni Muslims sprang up in his name. It gained wide popularity, began challenging federal laws and later ran candidates for political office. In late 2017, the group paralyzed the capital region for weeks in a mass protest that blocked a major highway.
Just as Qadri became a symbol of religious sacrifice for the burgeoning movement, Bibi — incarcerated in a women’s prison for years — became a focus of religious wrath. Blasphemy charges are often used in Pakistan as a way to persecute Christians and other minorities, and the facts of Bibi’s case seemed lost in the emotional wave of blame and vengeance that swept through rallies.
When the Supreme Court overturned her conviction in October, calling it a travesty of justice based on a muddle of lies and contradictions, Christian leaders and human rights groups in Pakistan celebrated, but the anti-blasphemy group held violent protests and called for uprisings against both civilian and military authorities.
The government, headed since August by Prime Minister Imran Khan and backed by the military, reluctantly agreed to keep Bibi in custody until the appeals process was finished. It has since detained the leaders of the anti-blasphemy group, but they are still viewed as a force to be reckoned with in religious politics.
Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this report.