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ISLAMABAD: Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman at the centre of a decade-long blasphemy row that sparked violent unrest and spotlighted religious extremism, left Pakistan on Wednesday and is believed to be in Canada.

Islamabad made no formal statement and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to confirm her arrival, citing privacy and security issues.

Her lawyer Saiful Mulook and multiple security sources on condition of anonymity said that Aasia had gone to Canada, with another government source stating that she had left “of her own free will”.

A labourer from central Punjab province and minority Christian, Aasia was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and sentenced to death. She was acquitted on her appeal last year.

Her case drew world attention to religious unrest in the country and raised eyebrows among Pakistan’s allies.

US welcomes move that reunites Christian woman with her family

“The United States welcomes the news that Aasia Bibi has safely reunited with her family,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

“The US uniformly opposes blasphemy laws anywhere in the world, as they jeopardise the exercise of fundamental freedoms.”

Speaking on the floor of the House of Commons on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May appeared to confirm that Canada was Aasia’s destination. “Canada made this offer and we thought it was right and appropriate that we supported the offer that Canada had made,” the British PM said.

Under Pakistan Penal Code, blasphemy carries a maximum death penalty. However, it is an incendiary issue with mere allegations of insulting the religion or religious figures having sparked lynching and vigilante violence in the past.

“It is a great relief that this shameful ordeal has finally come to an end and Aasia Bibi and her family are safe,” said Amnesty International South Asia’s Deputy Director Omar Waraich.

“She should never have been imprisoned in the first place, let alone endure the constant threats to her life. This case horrifyingly illustrates the dangers of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the urgent need to repeal them.”

Aasia has technically been free to leave Pakistan since January, when the Supreme Court dismissed a legal challenge to her acquittal in October 2018. Since then, she is widely believed to have been held in protective custody by the authorities as she awaited an asylum deal abroad.

In November, Trudeau said Ottawa was holding talks with Pakistan about bringing her to Canada, which he said is “a welcoming country”.

Many blasphemy cases in Pakistan see Muslims accusing Muslims, but rights activists have warned that religious minorities, particularly Christians, are often caught in the crossfire with such accusations used to settle personal scores.

Two politicians have been assassinated in connection with the Aasia case, and she spent much of her prison time in solitary confinement over fears she could be attacked by a guard or another prisoner.

Religious groups have regularly called for her to be executed, while activists have warned that she would not be safe in Pakistan.

Following her acquittal, the country was gripped for days by violent protests led by the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP). In the wake of the nationwide protests and anti-blasphemy sit-in that paralysed the capital Islamabad for weeks in 2017, TLP leaders were rounded up in a recent crackdown and believed to be in detention at present.

Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2019