Foreign Office Spokesperson Dr Mohammad Faisal on Thursday denied reports that Aasia Bibi had left Pakistan, saying the recently acquitted Christian woman was still in the country.
"There is no truth in reports of her leaving the country — it is fake news," Dr Faisal told DawnNewsTV. Aasia Bibi was released from Multan jail last night — a little over a week after the Supreme Court overturned her conviction and death sentence.
Shortly after the FO's clarification, Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry called out the "irresponsible" behaviour of some media outlets for running the news of Aasia Bibi allegedly leaving the country without "confirmation".
"It has become a norm to publish fake news for sake of headlines," Chaudhry said on Twitter. "#AsiaBibi case is sensitive issue; it was extremely irresponsible to publish news of her leaving the country without confirmation. I strongly urge section of media to act responsible."
The statements by FO and Chaudhry come on the heels of news reports from a day earlier which stated that Aasia Bibi had left Multan’s women prison and was being flown to an "unknown destination". This particular quote, attributed to Aasia Bibi's lawyer Saiful Malook, led to speculation that she had left the country.
However, reliable sources on Wednesday night had confirmed to Dawn that Aasia Bibi was brought to Islamabad onboard a special aircraft.
The aircraft carrying Aasia Bibi landed at the old Benazir Bhutto International Airport of Islamabad adjacent to Nur Khan Air Base, said sources. From there, she was taken to an undisclosed place in Islamabad amid tight security. The authorities are keeping her movement and whereabouts secret for security reasons.
Aasia Bibi's acquittal had sparked countrywide protests by religious parties and groups. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) is expected to hold a 'million march' in Karachi against the Supreme Court's verdict today.
Dr Faisal, during a press briefing at noon on Thursday, reiterated that Aasia Bibi was in Pakistan and "in a safe place". "The media should verify such news [before running it]."
"Aasia Bibi is a free citizen. After the court's verdict, she can go wherever she wants. There is no restriction on the mobility of a free citizen," said Dr Faisal, adding that only the interior ministry or the law could specify if legally her name could be placed on the Exit Control List (ECL).
Concern for Aasia's safety
On Tuesday, Italy stated it would help Aasia leave Pakistan because her life was in danger in the country following charges of blasphemy that put her on death row for eight years.
Her husband Ashiq Masih has reportedly stated that they could be killed by those opposing her acquittal.
Earlier, the international Catholic agency Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) had quoted Ashiq Masih as saying in a telephone call: “I appeal to the Italian government to help me and my family leave Pakistan. We are extremely worried because our lives are in danger. We don’t even have enough to eat because we can’t go out to buy food.”
Aasia’s case has prompted groups such as ACN, which has close ties to the Vatican, to demand protection for Christians in countries where they are a minority.
Protests following acquittal
Soon after the Supreme Court’s verdict, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) blocked roads in major cities of the country for three days, condemning the judges who had acquitted Aasia Bibi, the prime minister and the army chief.
The TLP had called off the protests after striking a deal with the government. Under the five-point agreement, the government said it would not object to the review petition filed against the acquittal of the Christian woman and would "initiate a legal process" to place her name on the ECL.
The agreement was signed by Minister for Religious Affairs Sahibzada Dr Noor-ul-Haq Qadri, Punjab Law Minister Basharat Raja, TLP patron-in-chief Pir Afzal Qadri and its central Nazim-i-Aala Waheed Anwar.
On Tuesday, Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mian Saqib Nisar took suo motu notice of the losses caused by the riots that broke out during the protests.
The CJP directed the federal and the provincial governments to submit reports within three days on the losses and steps taken to compensate victims of these riots.
'Netherlands offer shelter to Aasia Bibi's lawyer'
Stef Blok, the Netherlands' minister of foreign affairs, said that the Dutch have offered Malook "a place in the Shelter City program in the Netherlands for human rights defenders at risk".
The minister, in a tweet, further said that the Netherlands is closely monitoring "the situation of Aasia Bibi".