The authorities in Pakistan are dragging their feet over the release of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy because of fears she will speak to the media about her ordeal, it has been reported.
Asia Bibi was unbound from prison last November after eight years on death row but due to death threats, she was enforced into protective custody in a secret location where even contact with her family was severely restricted.
Another hurdle to her freedom was removed when the Supreme Court last month upheld the decision to acquit her after hardliners demanded a review. Yet she has still not been able to leave the country.
Regardless of Canada offering the 47-year-old asylum, The Times reports that Pakistani authorities are deliberately obstructing her departure because they fear she will cast a negative light on the country if she speaks to the media once overseas.
Pakistan has given guarantees that Bibi is free to leave the country after final paperwork has been completed but the continued delay is causing alarm among Canadian officials as well as her friends and family.
One Canadian diplomat told The Times that they have not been able to make direct contact with Asia Bibi.
“We are not allowed to meet her or even speak with her over the phone,” the diplomat said.
The newspaper reports that a Pakistani official suggested Asia Bibi promise not to speak about her case with foreign media or in book deals as a condition for leaving the country.
“She should be fully taken into confidence first, to not speak up after leaving Pakistan,” the official is quoted as saying.
The newspaper also quotes a friend of the Bibi’s family as saying that the mother-of-five has expressed concerns about her situation to her daughter, who is believed to already be in Canada.
“No one is telling me when they will release me and send us abroad,” she reportedly said.
One senior Pakistani official told the newspaper that Asia Bibi would leave the country ‘soon’ once the necessary paperwork had been completed and security arrangements were in place.
Months after her acquittal, Asia remains a target for religious extremists. When the courts overturned her death sentence last October, the country was brought to a standstill by opponents who took to the streets calling for her execution to go ahead.
It was also reported that extremists were going door to door trying to hunt her down, while former neighbors in the town where she was first accused of blasphemy in 2009 said they believed she should be killed.
The British Government has been strongly criticized at home over its refusal to offer asylum to Asia. While both Prime Minister Theresa May and Home Secretary Sajid Javid said Bibi’s safety was their primary concern, others accused the Government of failing in its moral obligations.
MP for Gillingham and Rainham, Rehman Chishti, told Parliament that asking a third country to grant Bibi asylum ‘would mean shifting our moral responsibility to another country and that can’t be right’.