Pakistan government moves to quell fresh outrage as fake images showing Asia Bibi outside the country circulate online
- Bibi, who spent eight years on death row for blasphemy, was acquitted by the Supreme Court last month
- The 54-year-old mother of four has been released from prison, but is being kept at a secret location pending a judicial review of the decision
The Pakistani government, already struggling with a crisis surrounding a Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy charges after eight years on death row, now has to deal with “fake” images on social media purporting to show her outside the country.
The deceptive images have prompted death threats to a lawmaker shown in one photograph, and are likely intended to whip up radical religious fervour over Asia Bibi’s case. It is unclear who is behind the circulation of the images.
Radical Islamists have held mass protests and demanded that Bibi be publicly executed. They have also filed a petition to repeal her Supreme Court acquittal. The government says Bibi remains in Pakistan, at a secret location for her own protection, until the review process is finished.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has warned hardline groups against using her plight to further their political aims with street protests.
He has defended the Supreme Court judges who on October 21 acquitted the 54-year old mother of five of blasphemy charges. But he has also acquiesced to demands by the Islamists that the acquittal be reviewed in an appeal process.
Blasphemy is a highly charged issue in Pakistan, where mere allegations of insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad can incite mobs into a frenzy of violence. The charge carries the death penalty, and critics say the blasphemy law is abused to settle religious scores.
Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry slammed the “fake” postings on Monday, one of which claims to show Bibi meeting Pope Francis.
The photo is actually of Bibi’s daughter from two years ago. Bibi and her family have always maintained her innocence and say she never insulted Islam’s prophet.
Chaudhry said the images misidentifying Bibi prompted death threats to a lawmaker in one photograph, Fazal Khan from the ruling Tehreek-e-Insaf Party. The lawmaker’s constituency is in a deeply conservative region in the country’s northwest.
“People can even be killed because of such fake postings,” Chaudhry said. The pictures were widely circulated on social media in Pakistan and shared on several local journalists’ groups, even a police and a media group.
“We are trying to seek cooperation from Twitter and Facebook against such fake news,” Chaudhry added.
Bibi’s ordeal dates back to 2009 when she went to fetch water for herself and fellow farmworkers. An argument took place after two Muslim women refused to drink from the same container as Bibi, who is Roman Catholic.
The women later said Bibi had insulted the Prophet Muhammad, and she was charged with blasphemy. She was put on trial, convicted and sentenced to death in 2010.
Following Bibi’s acquittal last month, the founder of the radical Tehreek-e-Labbak Party, Mohammed Afzal Qadri, issued a fatwa calling for the death of the three Supreme Court judges who handed down the acquittal, and the overthrow of Khan’s government. He also incited the military to mutiny.
In 2011, the governor of Punjab province was killed by his own guard after he defended Bibi and criticised the blasphemy law. A year later, the minister for minorities was shot and killed.
Bibi, who was freed from detention last week, is being held at a secret, closely guarded location in Pakistan. Those who are familiar with her circumstances say she is expected to remain there until the Supreme Court carries out the review.
On Sunday, the prime minister said the Supreme Court’s decision would be final. For now, it’s unclear when the review will be held or who would defend Bibi. Her lawyer, Saif-ul-Malook, fled the country following her acquittal, fearing for his life.
The Netherlands, which gave shelter to Malook, briefly suspended visa and passport services in Pakistan on Monday, though its foreign ministry denied the embassy had closed over security concerns.
The Dutch government said in a statement that its embassy in Pakistan, which is in a tightly guarded “diplomatic enclave”, had temporarily halted issuing visas “due to circumstances beyond our control”.
Pakistani media reported that the embassy had been forced to close because of threats. But the Dutch foreign ministry said reports of the embassy’s closure were mistaken.
“The Dutch embassy in Pakistan is open,” the ministry said.
“I can add that we take the security of the embassy and our employees very seriously. This is also the subject of consultations between the Netherlands and Pakistan,” an official at the Dutch foreign office said.
All consular and visa-related services were later resumed.
Additional reporting by Reuters