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Woman acquitted of blasphemy still can’t leave Pakistan

FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2010, file photo, Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman, listens to officials at a prison in Sheikhupura near Lahore, Pakistan. The Christian woman freed by Pakistan's Supreme Court which acquitted her on blasphemy charge was transferred to southern Karachi by Pakistan's security agencies, but has told a friend, who spoke to her on telephone, that she is being held in a room unable to leave and unable to find out when she can leave Pakistan. (AP Photo, File)

ISLAMABAD (AP) — A Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy after spending eight years on death row in Pakistan has been transferred from a secret location near the capital to another in Karachi, but is still unable to leave the country to join her daughters in Canada, a friend said Saturday.

Aman Ullah, who spoke to Aasia Bibi by telephone Friday, said the 54-year-old Bibi is being held in a room in the southern port city. He said Bibi, who faces death threats by radical Islamists, is frustrated and frightened, uncertain of when she will be able to leave Pakistan.

“She has no indication of when she will leave … they are not telling her why she cannot leave,” said Ullah, who fled the country Friday after receiving threats from extremists angered by his assistance to Bibi, which began while she was on death row.

Ullah has been a liaison between Bibi and European diplomats, who have sought to assist her. The Associated Press spoke to Bibi by telephone with Ullah’s assistance following her October acquittal, which was upheld last month.

Bibi’s ordeal began in 2009 when two fellow farmworkers refused to drink from the same container as a Christian woman. There was a quarrel and the two Muslim women later accused Bibi of blasphemy. The Supreme Court judges said there were widespread inconsistencies in the testimony against Bibi, who has steadfastly maintained her innocence.

The acquittal should have given Bibi her freedom, but Ullah said diplomats were told that her departure from Pakistan, where she feels her life would be in danger, would come not in the short term, but “in the medium term.”

He said Bibi told him she is locked in one room of a house.

“The door opens at food time only,” said Ullah, and she is allowed to make phone calls in the morning and again at night. He said she usually calls her daughters.

Bibi’s husband is with her, he said.

“She is living with her family and given requisite security for safety,” Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said in an email.

He said the government was responsible for taking “all possible measures” to protect her and her family, adding that “she is a free citizen after her release from jail and can move anywhere in Pakistan or abroad.”

Bibi told Ullah the security detail assigned to her refuses to explain why she is still confined.

Bibi’s case has brought international attention to Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which carries an automatic death sentence for a conviction of insulting Islam. There have been widespread complaints that the law is used to settle scores and intimidate religious minorities, including Shiite Muslims.

The mere suggestion of blasphemy can incite mobs to kill. After Bibi’s October acquittal the radical Tehreek-e-Labbaik party called its followers onto the streets, where they protested for three days demanding Bibi’s immediate execution as well as the death of the judges who acquitted her. The party leadership also advocated overthrowing Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government and incited the military against the army chief.

Since then the party’s leadership has been arrested along with dozens of their supporters for inciting violence.

Ullah, a rights activist, first began aiding those falsely charged with blasphemy when his wife was wrongly accused, and has since helped several people gain their freedom. Bibi’s case brought him to the attention of religious radicals.

In recent months, he has been physically assaulted, gunmen have opened fire on his home, and several religious radicals attacked his home. Ullah said he fears being attacked again or charged with blasphemy.

Bibi hopes to be able to join her daughters in Canada, where they have been granted asylum.

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