Asia Bibi, the Christian woman at the centre of a decade-long blasphemy row, has left Pakistan, a senior government source told AFP Wednesday, months after her death sentence was overturned leading to mass protests by Islamist hardliners.
Her departure is the latest chapter in a saga that has sparked violent demonstrations and high-profile assassinations while spotlighting religious extremism across wide sections of Pakistani society.
“Asia Bibi has left Pakistan of her own free will,” the government source told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
It was not clear when Bibi may have left or where she may have gone, though British Prime Minister Theresa May appeared to confirm that Canada was her destination while speaking on the floor of the House of Commons Wednesday.
“Canada made this offer and we thought it was right and appropriate that we supported the offer that Canada had made,” she said while welcoming the reports.
Canada’s foreign ministry said it had no comment on the matter and there was no immediate announcement from Pakistani officials.
Blasphemy carries a maximum death penalty under Pakistan’s penal code.
It is an incendiary issue in the Muslim-majority country, and mere allegations of insulting Islam have sparked lynchings and vigilante violence in the past.
Bibi – a labourer from central Punjab province – was first convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and was on death row until her acquittal last year.
Her case swiftly became the most infamous in Pakistan, drawing worldwide attention to extremism in the country.
She has technically been free to leave Pakistan since January when the Supreme Court dismissed a legal challenge to her acquittal in October.
Since then, Bibi has been widely believed to have been held in protective custody by authorities as she awaited an asylum deal in a third country.
In November Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa was holding talks with Pakistan about bringing her to Canada, which he said is “a welcoming country”.
Bibi’s lawyer Saif ul Mulook and multiple security sources in Pakistan also told AFP on condition of anonymity that Bibi had gone to Canada.
Islamist groups have regularly called for her to be executed, and activists have warned that she would not be safe in Pakistan.
Two politicians have been assassinated in connection with Bibi’s case, and she spent much of her time in prison in solitary confinement because of fears she could be attacked by a guard or another prisoner.
Following Bibi’s acquittal in October the country was gripped for days by violent protests led by the hardline group Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), which also called for mutiny in the armed forces and assassination of the country’s top judges for acquitting her.