Pakistan Rocked by Protests Over Acquittal of Asia Bibi on Blasphemy Charges

KARACHI, Pakistan — Negotiations continued on Friday between the Pakistani government and hard-line Islamist leaders enraged over the acquittal of a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, as protesters blocked major highways, businesses were shut down and the authorities feared an escalation in violence.

The Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who in 2010 was convicted on little evidence of violating Pakistan’s law against blasphemy by insulting the Prophet Muhammad, spent years on death row before her acquittal on Wednesday by the country’s Supreme Court. Despite her legal victory, which was hailed worldwide by rights groups, Ms. Bibi’s lawyers and her family have expressed fear for her safety, as hard-line Islamist parties in Pakistan have called for her execution.

Several Western countries have offered to grant Ms. Bibi asylum. But allowing her to leave Pakistan immediately would bring further turmoil for the new government of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Mr. Khan is currently on a visit to China, seeking a financial bailout package for the country’s emaciated economy.

The protesters, led by a firebrand cleric named Khadim Hussain Rizvi, have demanded that Ms. Bibi be placed on the so-called exit-control list, a roster of names that bars people from leaving Pakistan. Fawad Chaudhry, the Pakistani information minister, denied reports that she had been flown out of Pakistan.

Mr. Chaudhry said the government was still talking to religious leaders in hopes of quelling the protests. “The government does not want to use force and wants negotiations to succeed,” he said.

Asia Bibi in an undated photo. Though Ms. Bibi has won her legal battle against blasphemy charges, her lawyers and family have expressed grave fear for her safety as hard-line Islamists call for her execution.CreditBritish Pakistani Christian Association, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ben-Her Gill, a leader of the Christian community in Islamabad, the capital, said Ms. Bibi was still in Pakistan, at a secret location under the protection of the authorities.

Protesters took to the streets of several cities on Friday, demanding that the Supreme Court reverse its ruling and that the three justices on the panel that issued it, including Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, be fired.

Mobile networks were suspended in Islamabad and in three other major cities in Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, as the authorities tried to stop protesters from organizing and expanding the demonstrations.

A highway connecting Islamabad to the city of Lahore was blocked, and rail networks across the country were severely slowed by the ongoing protests. Schools in Islamabad, Punjab and Kashmir were closed because of the demonstrations.

Religious leaders have vowed not to stop the protests or budge from their demands, despite a warning from Maj. Gen. Faiz Hamida, Pakistan’s powerful counterintelligence chief, who met with Mr. Rizvi on Thursday and told him the demonstrations must end. “We will not compromise,” Mr. Rizvi said in a message posted on social media.

Religious leaders have demanded the ouster of the head of Pakistan’s military, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, accusing him of acquiescing to Ms. Bibi’s release. Soon after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Pir Muhammad Afzal Qadri, another prominent protest leader, urged army generals to revolt against their top commander.

The military said Friday that it had nothing to do with Ms. Bibi’s release. “The armed forces hope that this matter is resolved without disruption of peace,” Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, the army’s spokesman, was quoted by state-run media as saying.

Ms. Bibi, a mother of five in her early 50s, has for years been a central figure in the debate over Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, which critics say are often used to persecute and intimidate members of religious minorities. Blasphemy is a highly combustible subject in Pakistan, with emotions flaring over mere rumors that Islam has been insulted. People accused of it are often killed by mobs even before the police can take action, rights groups say.

Ms. Bibi was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad after getting into an argument with Muslim farm workers in June 2009 in her native village in Punjab. She was dragged to a local police station and charged with blasphemy. In 2010 she was convicted and sentenced to death, the first woman ever sent to Pakistan’s death row for blasphemy.

In 2011, Salmaan Taseer, an outspoken secular governor of Punjab Province who had campaigned for Ms. Bibi’s release and for changes in the blasphemy laws, was shot and killed by his own police bodyguard outside a cafe in an upscale area of Islamabad. Two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister of minorities and the only Christian cabinet minister in the Pakistani government, was gunned down outside his home in Islamabad after he, too, called for changes to the blasphemy law.

“The stakes attached to Ms Bibi’s case are extremely high,” said Saroop Ijaz, a Lahore-based lawyer. He said Mr. Khan’s government would probably be forced to give in to some of the protesters’ demands.

“These groups have always extracted their pound of flesh,” he said. “They’ve escalated to a point where it has become difficult for the government to avoid that fate. What that means for Asia Bibi, who has endured close to a decade of incarceration, remains uncertain.”

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