ISLAMABAD – The Pakistani government, already struggling with a crisis surrounding Aasia Bibi, 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 leaving the country or out of Pakistan.
Although it was unclear who was behind the images, which prompted death threats to a lawmaker shown in one photograph, it was likely they were intended to whip up radical religious fervor over Bibi’s case.
Radical Islamists have blocked Bibi’s freedom and demanded that she be publicly executed. They’ve 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 radical religious groups against using her plight to further their political aims with street protests.
He has defended the Supreme Court judges who on Oct. 21 acquitted the 54-year old mother of five of blasphemy charges but has also acquiesced to Islamists that the acquittal be reviewed in an appeal process.
Blasphemy is a highly charged issue in Pakistan, where mere allegations or accusations that someone had insulted the Prophet Muhammad can incite mobs into a frenzy of violence. The charge also carries the death penalty and critics say the controversial 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 the prophet.
Chaudhry said the images misidentifying Bibi also prompted the death threats to a lawmaker in one photograph, Fazal Khan from the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party. The lawmaker’s constituency is in a deeply conservative region in the country’s northwestern.
“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.
Pakistan has seen lynching mobs over blasphemy allegations. In 2011, the governor of Punjab province was killed by his own guard after he defended Bibi and criticized the blasphemy law. A year later, Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minorities and a Christian, 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 stay at the location 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 since her lawyer Saiful Malook fled the country following her acquittal, fearing for his life.