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Court Clears Way for Woman in Blasphemy Case to Leave Pakistan

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 1/29/2019 Saeed Shah, Waqar Gillani
a close up of a person © aamir qureshi/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

ISLAMABAD—Pakistan’s highest court affirmed its decision to free a Christian woman who had been convicted of blasphemy, dismissing a legal challenge by religious hard-liners.

The case of Asia Bibi had drawn an international outcry and demonstrations at home by Islamic extremists, who demanded that the death sentence decided by a lower court in 2010, be maintained. Sporadic protests broke out in several Pakistani cities after the decision on Tuesday.

Ms. Bibi said she had “never been so happy in her life” in response to the decision, an adviser to the family said, “’Now I know that for the first time in nine years, I’ll be able to hug my daughters,’” the adviser said she told him.

Ms. Bibi’s two daughters, ages 20 and 19, went quietly to Canada in recent weeks, according to the adviser. She and her husband are likely to join them there now while they determine where they will settle for the long term, the adviser said.

A poor farmhand who was working for less than a dollar a day before she was jailed, Ms. Bibi, 54 years old, has never been outside the country.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in November that his government was in talks with Islamabad about taking in Ms. Bibi. However, she would like to settle in Europe, the adviser said. Politicians from the European Union have been at the forefront of international calls for her release and for providing asylum, and diplomats said countries there are prepared to take her.

“We are working with like-minded friends and allies on this issue” said Brittany Fletcher, a spokesperson for Canada’s foreign ministry. “Canada is prepared to do everything we can to ensure the safety of Asia Bibi,”

In October, in a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court ruled that Ms. Bibi’s conviction was based on a “feast of falsehood” and that she must be freed. However, Pakistani authorities said she had to remain in the country until religious groups had exhausted all legal avenues. Tuesday’s ruling did just that.

The Supreme Court’s stance in the case gave hope to those campaigning for reform of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws, which critics say are open to abuse with fabricated and malicious allegations used to settle personal scores. Religious minorities in particular have been victims.

After the October ruling, Ms. Bibi was released from jail but kept at a secret location and guarded by security officials. Her attorney said she had concluded she must leave for her safety.

“She has no option,” said her lawyer, Saiful Malook, who has himself received death threats. “They will kill her.”

Ms. Bibi was jailed in 2009 after a quarrel erupted while picking fruit in a field in Punjab province. Muslim women refused to drink water she had fetched because she was Christian. Muslim villagers accused her of denigrating the Prophet Muhammad during the argument that followed, leading to the blasphemy charges against her.

Two lower courts found her guilty before the case reached the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Asif Khosa said repeatedly in court Tuesday that the key witnesses—the village mullah and two fellow women farm workers—had lied. He said that in a less sensitive case they would have been jailed for perjury.

Extremists don’t accept Ms. Bibi’s innocence and have threatened to kill her and the judges in the case.

“This ruling is just to please anti-Muslim lobbies,” said Tahir Kokhar, a lawyer assisting the prosecution.

In recent years, a movement has arisen in Pakistan around the blasphemy issue, taking inspiration from a police officer who gunned down a prominent politician who was calling for calling for Ms. Bibi’s release and for changes to the blasphemy law.

Hard-liners claim that the Pakistani authorities are in cahoots with Western countries to secularize the country, which includes taking away a law they see as protecting the sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad.

Human-rights campaigners and liberal politicians see no chance of overturning the blasphemy law, but hope for changes to make it more difficult to level false allegations.

Write to Saeed Shah at saeed.shah@wsj.com

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