Pakistan blasphemy case: UK prime minister asked about asylum bid

Media caption,
Zac Goldsmith: Did Theresa May stop UK offering Asia Bibi sanctuary?

Theresa May has defended herself after being asked whether she had intervened to stop the UK government offering asylum to a Pakistani Christian woman.

The prime minister was asked to "put the record straight" by Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith after reports she had blocked an asylum bid for Asia Bibi.

The Pakistani mother was acquitted of blasphemy last month and has been held in a secure location since her release.

Her husband has previously pleaded for asylum from the UK, US or Canada.

He says the family are in danger.

Almost 50 MPs have signed a motion calling on the UK to offer her unconditional asylum.

The issue was raised by Mr Goldsmith - whose former brother-in-law Imran Khan is Pakistan's new leader - during Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday.

But Mrs May said he "shouldn't necessarily believe everything he reads in the papers", adding "the absolute prime concern" was the "safety and security" of Asia Bibi and her family.

"We could approach this in two ways: we could say, 'We want to go out there and say something just so that we show that the UK is doing that,' or we can say, 'What is right for Asia Bibi?'" she said.

"We are working with other countries to make sure, as I say, that our prime aim, which is the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family, are what is provided for."

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Asia Bibi's husband said his family is in danger as mass protests over her acquittal took place in Pakistan

Several countries are understood to have offered Asia Bibi asylum so far, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explicitly saying the North American country was in discussions with Pakistan over the possibility of offering asylum to Asia Bibi shortly after her release.

However, Pakistan has agreed to try to stop her leaving the country to help calm the unrest in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling that saw her released over "flimsy" evidence in the original 2010 case.

Pakistani authorities arrested dozens of supporters of the hard-line Islamic cleric whose Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) party led mass protests over Asia Bibi's acquittal ahead of another planned protest last Sunday.

What was Asia Bibi accused of?

The trial stems from an argument she had with a group of women in June 2009.

Media caption,
Asia Bibi's escape from Pakistan death row

They were harvesting fruit when a row broke out about a bucket of water. The women said that because she had used a cup, they could no longer touch it, as her faith had made it unclean.

Prosecutors alleged that in the row that had followed, the women had said Asia Bibi should convert to Islam and that she had made offensive comments about the Prophet Muhammad in response.

She was later beaten up at her home, with her accusers saying she had confessed to blasphemy. She was arrested after a police investigation.

Acquitting her, the Supreme Court said that the case was based on unreliable evidence and her confession had been delivered in front of a crowd "threatening to kill her".

Why is this case so divisive?

Islam is Pakistan's national religion and underpins its legal system. Public support for the strict blasphemy laws is strong.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Asia Bibi's acquittal sparked protests by Islamists

Hard-line politicians have often backed severe punishments, partly as a way of shoring up their support base.

But critics say the laws have often been used to exact revenge after personal disputes and that convictions are based on thin evidence.

The vast majority of those convicted are Muslims or members of the Ahmadi community, who identify themselves as Muslims but are regarded as heretical by orthodox Islam. Since the 1990s, scores of Christians have also been convicted. They make up just 1.6% of the population.

The Christian community has been targeted by numerous attacks in recent years, leaving many feeling vulnerable to a climate of intolerance.

Since 1990, at least 65 people have reportedly been killed in Pakistan over claims of blasphemy.