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Who is Asia Bibi and why has her case sparked furious protests?

There have been calls for the Pakistani woman to be offered asylum, including in Ireland.

Italy Pakistan File photo of Asia Bibi from 2010. Source: AP/PA Images

YOU MAY HAVE heard the name Asia Bibi in recent weeks.

The Catholic woman spent eight years on death row in Pakistan for blasphemy before being acquitted last month.

Since her release from a prison in central Multan, she and her family have been in hiding amid death threats and calls for her execution from extremists.

Here’s a recap of her story and what may happen next.

Bibi’s arrest stems from a 2009 incident in which she fetched water for herself and fellow farm workers. An argument took place after two Muslim women refused to drink from the same container as Bibi because of her religion. 

A fight erupted and a local imam claimed Bibi insulted the Prophet Mohammed – a charge she denies.

Bibi, who is a mother-of-five and now aged 54, was convicted and sentenced to death in 2010. Since then activists from Pakistan and all over the world have been campaigning for her release.

rome People demonstrating in Rome on 13 November in solidarity with Asia Bibi. Source: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

Almost everyone living in Pakistan – about 96% – are registered as Muslim. About 1.5% of people are listed as Christian.

Bibi’s case highlighted divisions between traditionalists and modernists in the country, and her Supreme Court acquittal on 21 October sparked violent protests.

Blasphemy is a massively inflammatory issue in Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam and Prophet Mohammed have led to lynchings and murders.

International asylum 

During the week, Bibi’s lawyer said she and her family want to leave Pakistan for any Western country willing to issue them visas.

“I hope the Western world is trying to help her,” Saiful Malook said. He added that talks are taking place with several countries, as well as the European Union, but he didn’t give any further details.

Several countries have offered Bibi asylum, including Canada, Spain and France. Indeed, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said Ireland “would like to help” her.

malook Lawyer Saiful Malook pictured in Frankfurt on 20 November. Source: Boris Roessler/DPA/PA Images

Speaking last weekend, Flanagan said: “Should an application be received, I would be confident that it would receive favourable consideration.

We would certainly like to be of assistance if we could be and so if there is a request we would respond favourably and appropriately to ensure the safety of someone who is clearly in danger in their own country.

Malook left Pakistan after the Supreme Court’s acquittal, fearing for his own safety. He said he’s also looking for somewhere to move to, adding that Germany would be one of his preferences because his late wife was from there. 

Demands for public execution 

In recent weeks Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) party launched nationwide protests demanding Bibi’s public execution and the party’s founder, Mohammad Afzal Qadri, called for the death of the three Supreme Court judges who ruled to acquit her.

pak Protesters demonstrating against Bibi's acquittal in Lahore on 31 October. Source: Rana Sajid Hussain/Zuma Press/PA Images

Qadri has also called for the overthrow of the Pakistani government. Protests ended after the government agreed to a Supreme Court review.

However, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has gone on national television saying that the Supreme Court’s decision will be final and upheld. Malook also said the chances of the acquittal being overturned are slim.

TLP’s leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, and several supporters were arrested by police in Lahore yesterday. The party has called for more protests to take place tomorrow. 

Rumours about Pope Francis 

Rumours are rife in Pakistan that Bibi has already left the country, with fake reports claiming she met with Pope Francis in the Vatican – a claim debunked by AFP.

The government has repeatedly stated that Bibi is being held in a secure location in Pakistan, though her exact whereabouts are unknown.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi reiterated this position 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.”

Bibi is not allowed to leave the country until the final review into her case is complete. Until then, eyes from all over the world will remain fixed on Pakistan. 

Contains reporting from Associated Press and © AFP 2018 

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Órla Ryan

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