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Pakistan's Zardari faces pressure over Christian woman's death sentence

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 6:15 PM

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - Pakistan's president faced mounting pressure Thursday to weigh in on the fate of a Christian woman recently sentenced to death for blasphemy, a case that has drawn the attention of the Vatican and sparked street protests in this Muslim-majority nation.

In a report delivered to President Asif Ali Zardari on Thursday, Pakistan's minorities affairs minister recommended that the woman, Asia Bibi, 45, be pardoned or released from prison if her pending court appeal is not quickly addressed. The minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, said he also recommended amendments to the nation's controversial blasphemy law.

The report followed calls for clemency by Pope Benedict XVI, human rights groups, newspapers and the governor of the province where Bibi was convicted, becoming the first woman condemned to hanging for blasphemy.

But opponents of a pardon have been equally loud, and any response by Zardari's secular government will be viewed as a barometer of its will to stand up to influential hard-line religious groups, including some political allies. On Wednesday, hundreds of conservative Muslim demonstrators in the eastern city of Lahore threatened violence if Bibi is released, a pledge that has been echoed by other religious organizations and politicians.

Bibi's saga, which began last year when Muslim women in her village near Lahore accused her of speaking ill of the prophet Muhammad, is only the latest blasphemy case to draw notice in Pakistan. Human rights organizations have long urged a repeal of the law, and Zardari's party - whose government depends on a fragile coalition that includes conservative religious parties - has vowed, but done little, to prevent its abuse.

Bhatti said Zardari called for the creation of a committee Thursday to review the blasphemy law and promised to pardon Bibi if her court appeal languishes.

"All Pakistanis, no matter what their religion, are equal under the law," said Farahnaz Ispahani, a spokeswoman for Zardari. "President Zardari has followed the case of Asia Bibi closely and will take appropriate action, if necessary, to issue a pardon or grant clemency."

Several people have been sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan, but none has been executed, according to government officials. Instead, rights activists and lawyers say, the law is widely used to ostracize religious minorities or settle personal scores.

Though police are supposed to investigate cases, lawyers say that in practice, accusers must do little more than gather an intimidating group to lodge an allegation with police, who typically make an arrest to avert an uprising.

That is what happened in Bibi's case, according to Bhatti, who is a Christian. He said that according to his investigation, Bibi drew the ire of fellow farmhands after a dispute in June 2009, when they refused to drink water she collected and she refused their demands that she convert to Islam.

The women reported the incident to a cleric, who concluded that Bibi had committed blasphemy and then gathered a crowd that forced her to the police station, Bhatti said. He said that the police did not investigate and that a court, without hearing Bibi's full account, handed down a death sentence four months later.

"The police station was crowded by the Muslim ulemas," or religious scholars, said Bhatti, a longtime opponent of the law. "They said, 'If you will not register the case, she will be killed at this spot right now.' "

Bhatti said he has concluded that Bibi, a mother of five who has been in prison 17 months, never criticized Islam and is innocent, and that the case against her was riddled with flaws.

For many human rights activists, the debate about Bibi is beside the point. The law must be repealed, they say, or amended to discourage false accusations and require thorough investigations.

People accused of blasphemy are frequently so threatened that they must leave their towns, and several convicted blasphemers have been killed in jail, said Ali Dayan Hasan, a Pakistan-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.

"The cases that go to trial are really the tip of the iceberg," Hasan said. "The law creates this legal infrastructure which is then used in various informal ways to intimidate, coerce, harass and persecute."

Bibi's husband and children are now in hiding, Bhatti said.

"We are frightened," Bibi's husband, Ashiq Masih, a brickmaker, told reporters in Islamabad on Wednesday. "We are receiving threats, especially from clerics."

Some religious groups said they will take to the streets Friday to discourage a pardon for Bibi. Sahibzada Fazal Karim, the leader of the Sunni Ittehad Council, said he agrees that the law should be amended - but not toward leniency. Instead, he said, it should make blasphemy against other religious figures, such as Jesus, also punishable by death.

"Death is the only punishment for a person who commits blasphemy," Karim said. "If such a man or woman is set free by the president, ignoring the decision by the judiciary, it will have a ruinous effect on peace and harmony in the country."

Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.

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