Bon voyage to Aasia Bibi

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Reports that Aasia Bibi and her husband had left the country began to circulate on the morning of Wednesday 8th May. They were confirmed by the Pakistan government, her lawyer who has not always been reliable in these matters, the American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the British Prime Minister Theresa May, all within the space of a few hours. Canada was her reported destination and the Canadian PM was tight-lipped about it when asked, citing privacy and security concerns, both valid. By the end of the day it appeared that Aasia Bibi had disappeared into a new life, and is unlikely to be seen much of again as a public figure.

Two days after her exit there is little to ruffle the waters. Editorial and op-ed comment and analysis in the newspapers both English and Urdu has been limited or absent. Electronic media are now silent on the matter. There have been no reports of street demonstrations similar to those that followed the announcement of her acquittal last October; indeed there has been a marked absence of comment by any of the extremist groups that called for her hanging, though there are reports that some groups remain committed to killing her wherever she is in the world. These have to be taken seriously and we may be certain that the Canadian police and security services will be keeping a close watch on Aasia Bibi and her family.

This much-wronged woman will now live a life of obscurity and anonymity. She will probably have a new identity, but she will never feel entirely secure. Much in her favour is the fact that there are no recent pictures of her and none of her face since her conviction. It may be reasonably assumed that she is not going to have weathered the travails of the last decade entirely unscathed, and may not be quickly recognisable other than to those close to her.

To all intents and purposes the government of Pakistan has buried Aasia Bibi alive, and she will quickly fade from memory. Any attempt to reframe the blasphemy laws have provoked instant and violent reaction on the streets with mobs easily whipped to frenzy by extremist political parties and groups. There is no appetite within the majority population for change in the laws and there is no organised secular front that might challenge them. The laws have morphed from being the elephant in the room to be an albatross hung on the neck of the state that it can do little to divest itself of even if it wanted to – and there is no indication that the current dispensation has the slightest interest in disturbing the status-quo.

The Ancient Mariner shot the albatross that he was doomed to wear bringing ill-luck to all around him. Aasia Bibi may have left for Canada but there are other cases still pending, and other men still at risk of mob-justice if they are ever freed. There is no escape from the stain of blasphemy once the accusation or insinuation, no matter true or false, is made. There are going to be other cases, and with the international media now alert to the issue there will be further bad press for Pakistan as it struggles to live with a problem entirely of its own making. The blasphemy laws have become the albatross, and the shade of Aasia Bibi is going to haunt the deck of the ship of state for years to come.

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