ISLAMABAD — The lawyer for a Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy charges after spending eight years on death row in Pakistan has fled the country, fearing for his safety, her brother said Saturday.
James Masih said Asia Bibi’s lawyer, Saiful Malook, left Pakistan, without providing further details. Malook’s phone was switched off.
Pakistan’s top court acquitted Bibi on Wednesday and ordered her release in a move that infuriated the country’s hard-line Islamists, who have held nationwide protests demanding her execution.
The government reached a deal with the Islamists overnight in which it agreed to impose a travel ban on Bibi while the case is reviewed. In return, the Islamists halted their protests, which had blocked roads and brought life to a standstill in parts of the country.
Malook told The Associated Press earlier this week that he would have to leave Pakistan because the followers of hard-line cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi had threatened to kill him as well as the judges who acquitted Bibi.
The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported that Malook passed through Rome en route to Amsterdam. It said he would speak at a conference in Amsterdam next week before permanently relocating to London.
Blasphemy against Islam is punishable by death in Pakistan, and the mere rumor has caused lynchings. Islamists have made the blasphemy law a central rallying cry.
Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was shot and killed by one of his guards in 2011 for defending Bibi and criticizing the misuse of the law. The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was hanged for the crime, but later was hailed by religious hard-liners as a martyr, with millions visiting a shrine set up for him near Islamabad. Malook had served as the prosecutor in Qadri’s trial.
Bibi was arrested in 2009 on allegations that she insulted Islam’s Prophet Muhammad during an altercation with other farmworkers. Her family and lawyers deny she ever insulted Islam.
Rights groups have called for Bibi’s release and criticized the blasphemy law, saying it has been used to settle scores or abuse religious minorities. The court upheld the blasphemy law, but said there was not enough evidence to convict Bibi.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court has not been known to reverse its decisions, but court reviews typically take years. Bibi’s ordeal looks set to continue until the review is completed.
Bibi’s family had expected her release by Thursday night. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, returned from Britain with their children in mid-October and was waiting for her release so that they could fly out of Pakistan. Though the family has not disclosed her destination, France and Spain have offered asylum.