Supporters of the Islamist Jamiat Ulma-e-Islam-F political party demand the neck of Asia Bibi during a second day of protesting against the Supreme Court acquittal of the Christian woman who had been charged, convicted and sentenced to hang for alleged blasphemy – insulting the Prophet Muhammad in 2009. (EPA photo)
ISLAMABAD: The husband of a Pakistani Christian woman at the centre of a divisive blasphemy case has pleaded for international help to leave the country, saying he feared for his family’s safety.
The request by Asia Bibi’s husband Ashiq Masih came a day after he criticised a government deal with hardline Islamists that left her in legal limbo, and called on authorities to protect her.
Bibi – who had been on death row since 2010 on blasphemy charges – was acquitted by the Supreme Court Wednesday, triggering large street protests by ultra-conservative Islamists who paralysed Pakistan for three days, blocking roads and disrupting traffic.
The government reached a deal Friday to end the protests by agreeing to a travel ban preventing Bibi from leaving the country, and saying it would not object to hardline movements appealing the verdict.
An appeal has now been filed with the court against Bibi’s release.
Masih criticised the government deal, saying it was “wrong”.
“I request President Donald Trump to help us to leave (the country), and I request the prime minister of the UK to do their level best to help us, to grant us freedom,” said Masih, in a video message, also requesting help from the Canadian prime minister.
Wilson Chowdhry, of the British Pakistani Christian Association, said the family was resting its hopes on the US, Britain or Canada to grant them asylum and help them reach a place of safety.
“These nations have the largest Pakistani Christian communities,” Chowdhry said, added that Masih also wants asylum for some members of the extended family and those who have helped with his wife’s case, one of whom could speak English.
“If Asia Bibi leaves the country, every family member, every person associated to her, will be killed,” he said.
Chowdhry said the family’s initial relief at Bibi’s acquittal has turned into anguish.
“The daughters are weeping. They still haven’t seen their mother. The family is totally shattered,” he said.
“They absolutely don’t know when they will see their mother. Since (the court decision), with the violence and the protests, it is too dangerous for them to see their mother in jail.”
Blasphemy is a hugely inflammatory charge in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam can spark attacks and killings at the hands of vigilante mobs.
Masih Saturday told German Deutsche Welle radio the court had been “very courageous” to acquit his wife, an illiterate mother in her 50s who was accused of blasphemy a decade ago.
“The current situation is very dangerous for us. We have no security and are hiding here and there, frequently changing our location,” he told the German radio station, saying he was worried his wife would be attacked in prison.
The case began in June 2009 when Bibi was asked to fetch water while out working in the fields. Muslim women labourers objected, saying that as a non-Muslim, she should not touch the water bowl, and reportedly a fight erupted.
A local imam then claimed Bibi insulted the Prophet Mohammed – a charge she has consistently denied.
Bibi’s lawyer fled Pakistan on Saturday, fearing for his life.
“In the current scenario, it’s not possible for me to live in Pakistan,” said Saif-ul-Mulook, 62, before boarding a plane to Europe.
Masih demanded the government reinforce Bibi’s protection in prison, worrying that she may be attacked. He cited the case of two Christian men who were shot dead after a court acquitted them in another blasphemy case.
Pakistan’s leading rights watchdog slammed Islamabad over the deal, saying it was “appalled at the government’s failure to preserve the writ of the state and the sanctity of the rule of law”.
“The TLP called openly for murder and mutiny, made a mockery of the rule of law and fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution, and appears to have assumed all the while that its methods were legitimate means of dissent,” the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said in a statement Sunday.
But information minister Fawad Chaudhry insisted the government was not ignoring the actions of the Islamists.
“No one should have this wrong impression that the state will ignore this behaviour,” he told reporters Sunday. “The state will not ignore the rebellion.”
Police in Islamabad Sunday arrested 12 people for violence and incitement and were seeking another 32 who had been identified.
Reports had been “registered against more than 100 protestors who were involved in vandalism in Islamabad,” senior city official Deputy Commissioner Hamza Shafqaat said on Twitter, adding some 500 people had been accused over the unrest.