ISLAMABAD — The release of a Christian woman in Pakistan, acquitted eight years after being sentenced to death for blasphemy, was apparently delayed Friday after talks failed between the government and radical Islamists who want her publicly hanged.
Islamists held rallies Friday across Pakistan against freedom for Asia Bibi and to denounce Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling that overturned her 2010 conviction of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Her family has always maintained her innocence and says she never insulted Islam's prophet.
Since the landmark ruling, radical Islamists have blocked highways and damaged or set fire to dozens of vehicles to pressure the government to stop Bibi's release from an undisclosed detention facility.
On Friday, some 5,000 Islamists rallied in the capital, Islamabad and nearly 4,000 demonstrators staged a sit-in in Lahore, demanding that Bibi's acquittal verdict be overturned. Similar rallies were also held in the northwestern city of Peshawar; there were no reports of violence.
Over 2,000 demonstrators blocked a key road linking Islamabad with the garrison city of Rawalpindi, causing traffic jams. Hundreds also blocked another key motorway, connecting Islamabad with other major cities. No violence was reported during the rallies.
On Thursday, a lawyer representing a local cleric who had raised the initial blasphemy charges against Bibi petitioned the Supreme Court to reverse its acquittal.
Pakistan shut down schools and colleges after radical cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik party, announced that "talks" between his deputies and the government about Bibi's fate had failed.
Before dawn Friday, Rizvi told an emotionally-charged rally in the eastern city of Lahore that one of the government negotiators threatened his deputies during the talks that security forces will ruthlessly kill them if they did not disperse peacefully. He asked his supporters to continue sit-ins as authorities summoned paramilitary troops to restore order.
"We are ready to die to show our love for the prophet," he said.
Rizvi's envoys had demanded that Bibi be barred from leaving the country but Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry rejected the demand, saying the government will not accept any dictates.
Ghulam Mustafa, a lawyer representing a provincial cleric in Punjab who had filed the initial blasphemy charges against Bibi, petitioned the Supreme Court, requesting the judges review her acquittal. The court has set not dates to take up the petition, but Bibi's release could be further delayed by the process. Pakistan's Supreme Court has not been known to reverse its decisions but court reviews typically take years.
Interior Minister Sheharyar Afridi said Friday that officials were trying to persuade Islamists to disperse their rallies peacefully.
Authorities also stepped up security near an undisclosed detention facility where Bibi is being held for her safety. On Thursday, prison officials said two inmates were arrested last month for planning to kill Bibi by strangling her. They said the men were still being questioned.
Bibi's family had expected her release by Thursday night. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, returned from Britain with their children in mid-October and was waiting for her release so that they could fly out of Pakistan. Though the family has not disclosed the country of her destination, France and Spain have offered asylum.
Islamabad authorities suspended mobile phone services on Friday in the city, likely to prevent the crowds from swelling further in the Pakistan capital.
Bibi's acquittal has 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.
Khan condemned the Islamists on Wednesday after cleric Afzal Qadri urged supporters to kill the three judges who acquitted Bibi, revolt against army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and overthrow Khan's government.
Military's spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor said Friday the army was exercising restraint, to give a chance for a peaceful resolution. He asked demonstrators to refrain from violence and await the outcome of the review petition to the Supreme Court.
"Let this legal process be completed first," he told state-run Pakistan Television.
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 case has drawn international attention and also put Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws into focus again. The charge of blasphemy carried the death penalty in this majority Muslim nation and critics say it is often used to settle feuds and arguments.