Asia

Pakistan blasphemy case: Asia Bibi freed from jail

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Media captionAsia Bibi's escape from Pakistan death row

Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy after spending eight years on death row, has been freed from prison.

Last week's Supreme Court ruling sparked violent protests from Islamists and the government agreed to their demand to stop her leaving Pakistan.

News of her release led to some confusion, with reports she had been taken to another country.

But the foreign office later said she was still in Pakistan.

The case is highly sensitive and Information Minister Fawad Hussein said journalists had been "extremely irresponsible" in reporting she had left the country without official confirmation.

Those reports were based on comments from her lawyer, Saiful Malook, who has been granted temporary asylum in the Netherlands after facing death threats.

Asia Bibi's husband had said they were in danger and pleaded for asylum. A number of Western countries are understood to have held discussions with Asia Bibi's family about granting them asylum.

The mother-of-five was released from prison in the city of Multan on Wednesday and the foreign office says she is in "a safe place in Pakistan".

Also known as Asia Noreen, she was convicted in 2010 of insulting the Prophet Muhammad during a row with neighbours.

The Pakistani government has said it will start legal proceedings to prevent her going abroad after agreeing the measure to end the violent protests.

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Image caption Asia Bibi's acquittal sparked protests by Islamists

Many of the protesters were hardliners who support strong blasphemy laws and called for Asia Bibi to be hanged.

One Islamist leader said all three Supreme Court judges also "deserved to be killed".

A spokesman for the hardline Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) party, which blocked roads in major cities for several days, said Asia Bibi's release was in breach of their deal with the government.

"The rulers have showed their dishonesty," TLP spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters.

The deal also saw officials agree not to block a petition for the Supreme Court to evaluate Asia Bibi's acquittal in the light of Islamic Sharia law.

What was Asia Bibi accused of?

The trial stems from an argument Asia Bibi had with a group of women in June 2009.

They were harvesting fruit when a row broke out about a bucket of water. The women said that because she had used a cup, they could no longer touch it, as her faith had made it unclean.

Prosecutors alleged that in the row which followed, the women said Asia Bibi should convert to Islam and that she made offensive comments about the Prophet Muhammad in response.

She was later beaten up at her home, during which her accusers say she confessed to blasphemy. She was arrested after a police investigation.

Acquitting her, the Supreme Court said that the case was based on unreliable evidence and her confession was delivered in front of a crowd "threatening to kill her".

Why is this case so divisive?

Islam is Pakistan's national religion and underpins its legal system. Public support for the strict blasphemy laws is strong.

Hard-line politicians have often backed severe punishments, partly as a way of shoring up their support base.

But critics say the laws have often been used to exact revenge after personal disputes, and that convictions are based on thin evidence.

The vast majority of those convicted are Muslims or members of the Ahmadi community who identify themselves as Muslims but are regarded as heretical by orthodox Islam. Since the 1990s scores of Christians have also been convicted. They make up just 1.6% of the population.

The Christian community has been targeted by numerous attacks in recent years, leaving many feeling vulnerable to a climate of intolerance.

Since 1990, at least 65 people have reportedly been killed in Pakistan over claims of blasphemy.