Radical Islamists mounted rallies across the country for a second day after Pakistan's Supreme Court in a landmark ruling overturned the 2010 conviction against Asia Bibi for insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad. The charge of blasphemy carries the death penalty in this majority Muslim nation.
Bibi's acquittal posed a challenge to the government of Pakistan's new Prime Minister Imran Khan, who came to power this summer partly by pursuing the Islamist agenda. He asked protesters not to "test the patience of the state."
On Thursday, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said the government was avoiding the use of force against demonstrators to resolve the issue peacefully. Bibi remained at an undisclosed location Thursday, where the 54-year-old mother of five was being held for security reasons, awaiting her formal release, her brother James Masih told The Associated Press.
Masih said his sister simply would not be safe in Pakistan. "She has no other option and she will leave the country soon," he said. Masih would not disclose the country of her destination but both France and Spain have offered asylum.
Also on Thursday, jail officials said two inmates were arrested last month at an undisclosed detention facility for planning to kill Bibi by strangling her. They said the men were still being questioned.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. A female commando who is part of a team of police and paramilitary troops deployed to protect Bibi, told The Associated Press that Bibi was reading a Bible when the news about her acquittal was conveyed to her.
Bibi was wearing green and orange traditional Pakistani dress and a scarf when an AP reporter saw her at the facility. According to the female commando, who asked to remain unidentified as she was not authorized to speak to media, Bibi upon hearing news of her release said the judges gave her a new life and she was grateful to them.
Officials said Bibi is at a safe facility but that she still fears for her life and has trouble sleeping, fearing someone might harm her. Bibi's husband, Ashiq Masih, had returned from Britain with their children in mid-October and was waiting for her to join them, the brother said.
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 Islamists blocked a key road linking the capital Islamabad with the garrison city of Rawalpindi on Thursday, demanding Bibi be publicly hanged. Authorities deployed paramilitary troops, signaling they could move in to clear the roads.
Hundreds also blocked another key motorway, linking Islamabad with major cities such as Lahore and Peshawar, chanting slogans against Bibi and demanding her execution. Later on Thursday, lawyer Ghulam Mustafa filed a petition in the Supreme Court requesting the judges review the acquittal as the government began talks with rally organizers to end their protests, which led to dozens of vehicles being torched.
Meanwhile, opposition lawmakers in parliament called Thursday for reforming the judicial system and Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law — so that innocents like Bibi wouldn't spent years languishing in jail.
Hafiz Saeed, a radical cleric wanted by the United States, urged followers to hold rallies across Pakistan on Friday to condemn Bibi's release. Saeed is the founder of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba group, which was blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people.
Protesters, rallied by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, also set up roadblocks and burned tires in the southern port city of Karachi while hundreds clashed Thursday with police in various parts of eastern Punjab province.
Many parents kept their children from school, fearing more violence. The Islamists also called for the killing of the three judges, including Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, who acquitted Bibi. The three are on the hit list of Rizvi's Tehreek-e-Labbaik party, which has demanded a public execution for Bibi. Rizvi has managed to turn out tens of thousands of supporters in the past, often forcing authorities to bow to his demands on religious matters.
Tehreek-e-Labbaik claimed Thursday that two of its supporters were killed by police fire during overnight clashes in Karachi. No government official could immediately confirm any casualties. In his televised speech, Prime Minister Khan warned the Islamists: "Let me make it very clear to you that the state will fulfill its responsibility."
Bibi's lawyer, Saiful Malook, has gone into hiding as the extremists had threatened his life as well. On Wednesday, cleric Afzal Qadri, with Rizvi by his side, urged a crowd of supporters outside the Punjab provincial parliament in the city of Lahore to revolt against army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and overthrow Khan's government.
Bibi's acquittal, however, has been seen as a hopeful sign by Christians in Pakistan, where the mere rumor of blasphemy can spark lynchings. Religious minorities, who have been repeatedly targeted by extremists, fear the law because it is often used to settle scores and to pressure minorities.
Bibi was arrested in 2009 after she was accused of blasphemy following a quarrel with two fellow female farm workers who refused to drink from a water container used by a Christian. A few days later, a mob accused her of insulting Islam's prophet, leading to her 2010 conviction.
Bibi's family has always maintained her innocence and says she never insulted the prophet.
Tanveer reported from Multan, Pakistan