A Pakistani Christian woman accused of blasphemy will be granted a presidential pardon or clemency, an aide to President Asif Ali Zardari told the Monitor on Wednesday.
Aasia Bibi, a 45 year-old mother of five who has spent a year-and-a-half in jail on charges of insulting the prophet Muhammad and the Quran, was due to be executed by hanging on Nov. 8 in a case that has garnered worldwide attention and drawn attention to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which critics say are misused to persecute minorities.
In the clearest indication yet of how the Pakistani government intends to act, presidential spokesman Farahnaz Ispahani told the Monitor: “Pakistan is a nation of many faiths and religions, and all Pakistanis, no matter what their religion, are equal under the law.
"President Zardari has followed the case of Asia Bibi closely, and will take appropriate action, if necessary, to issue a pardon or grant clemency to ensure that Aasia Bibi is neither incarcerated or harmed. Pakistan remains committed to protecting its religious minorities."
The statement follows a public appeal by the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who said he would petition the president to seek Mrs. Bibi’s release, as well as Pakistan’s minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, who has investigated the alleged incident of blasphemy and found Bibi innocent.
Last week, Pope Benedict XVI appealed for leniency and told public gathering that Christians in Pakistan "are often victims of violence and discrimination."
According to Mr. Bhatti, the case will be brought before Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who will then present his advice to Zardari. Zardari may then choose to issue a pardon, if a higher court has not overturned the ruling by that stage.
Nadeem Anthony, a senior Christian member of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), says Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which were strengthened under the tenure of Islamist dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, must be reformed in order to prevent their misuse by those seeking to carry out personal vendettas.
“The people who instigate these cases should be caught and punished. The complainants are the ones committing the blasphemy,” he says.
According to court documents, Bibi, a farmhand from the district of Nankana Sahib in the central Punjab Province, was accused of blasphemy by a Muslim woman who took offense at being served water by a Christian.
A district judge found her guilty of having stated that insects had feasted upon the prophet Muhammad’s ear prior to his death and that he married his first wife for wealth, and that the Quran was written by man and not God. Bibi denied the accusations, claiming ignorance of Islamic knowledge.
The charge of blasphemy was amended to carry the penalty of death in 1991, under the government of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, currently the country’s opposition leader. No one accused of blasphemy has yet been executed for the crime, though several accused have fallen prey to extrajudicial killings either in the courtroom, in jail, or even in the hospital.
Privately, senior members of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), considered Pakistan’s most liberal party, express frustrations at not being able to repeal the laws which they consider anachronistic. But as members of a broad coalition that includes an Islamist party, they feel they do not have the votes to carry out such a motion.
They point out that Zardari, an opponent of the death penalty, has quietly refused to sign any execution warrants since he took office in 2008.
Christians make up around 5 percent of Pakistan’s population of 180 million people, and live mainly in populous Punjab Province, where they often face persecution. Last year, an anti-Christian mob killed eight people dead in the Punjabi town of Gojra.