A group of cross-party Members of Parliament have accused Pakistan’s Government of behaving in a way that “falls short of what we would expect from a member of the Commonwealth” after it emerged that Asia Bibi, the Catholic woman acquitted of blasphemy after spending eight years on death row in Pakistan, is being held in “protective custody” and is still unable to leave the country for Canada, where she has been offered asylum.
In a strongly worded letter addressed to Mohammad Nafees Zakaria, High Commissioner of Pakistan to the United Kingdom, Labour MP Mike Kane, a Catholic, and 19 other Members of both Houses of Parliament describe the way in which Bibi’s case has been handled by authorities in Pakistan as “disgraceful”.
“We, Members of Parliament from all political parties and both Houses, ask you immediately to convey to your Government in no uncertain terms our disappointment, anger and frustration that Bibi has still not been released to allow her to take up the offer of asylum in Canada,” the MPs write.
According to reports, Bibi is currently being held in the southern port city of Karachi. Her friend Aman Ullah, who was forced to flee the country on 15 February, told the Associated Press that Bibi and her husband are locked in a single room in a house where the door opens only “at food times”.
Foreign diplomats have said that the delay in Bibi’s paperwork is deliberate and Canadian envoys have not been allowed to contact her.
It is believed that Bibi is being pressured not to criticise Pakistan or its authorities on leaving the country.
"If this is true, such pressure is wholly inappropriate and will, in the longer term, do even more damage to the reputation of the Government that you represent", the MPs write.
“We look forward to your prompt response and to the release to the Canadian Embassy of Asia Bibi without further delay,” the letter concludes.
Publicly, Pakistani authorities have insisted that Bibi is free to leave Pakistan.
Information minister, Fawad Chaudhry, told the Associate Press in an email that the government was responsible for taking “all possible measures” to protect Bibi and her family, adding that “she is a free citizen after her release from jail and can move anywhere in Pakistan or abroad.”
A Canadian foreign affairs spokesman said: “The case of Asia Bibi is a priority for our government and we are focused on ensuring the safety of her and her family. We urge the government of Pakistan to take all necessary steps to keep her safe.”
Pakistan’s supreme court on 29 January upheld the blasphemy acquittal of Bibi, dismissing a petition filed by Islamists who had called for her execution. It was thought at the time that she would be able to immediately leave the country.