Pakistan: Warning of public anger if blasphemy case is dropped

RELIGIOUS hardliners in Pakistan have warned the country's president he risks a wave of public anger if he pardons a Christian woman condemned to death for blasphemy.

The case of Asia Bibi has divided the nation since it was revealed two weeks ago that the mother of five had been sentenced to hang after being accused of criticising the Prophet Mohammed.

It has also cast light on Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which many believe are being misused to settle personal scores.

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Politicians and human rights campaigners have taken up her cause, urging President Asif Ali Zardari to use his powers of pardon. Even the Pope has asked for Bibi's release.

However, the row highlights the government's awkward relationship with religion in a country where few want to be seen as soft on enemies of Islam.

Those faultlines were exposed yesterday when two clerics insisted that death was the only suitable punishment and urged Mr Zardari not to bend to outside influence.

"I advise him not to take a hasty decision under foreign pressure," said Qari Hanif Jallundari, who heads the Wafaqul Madaris al Arabia, an umbrella group of about 12,000 madrassas which represent the hardline Deobandi strain of Islam.

He added that the case should be referred to the country's higher courts without any undue pressure from the president, saying: "Such a decision will lead to untoward repercussions."

Bibi, an agricultural labourer who comes from Punjab province, was arrested in June last year after a series of disputes over her religion.

Her supporters say she was charged with blasphemy only after an angry mob closed in on the police station where she was being held for her protection.

She is believed to be the first woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. About 20 men convicted in the past have been freed on appeal, a process that can take years.

Her daughters spoke this week of their anguish.

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"We have passed through very tough days," said Sidra at Sheikhupura Jail, where her mother is being held.

"The day when my mother was awarded the death sentence was the worst day of my life.

"My father and brother didn't tell us at first but when we came to know we all got very depressed and didn't eat anything. Now we have hope that she will be pardoned."The governor of Punjab Province, Salmaan Taseer, says he is convinced of her innocence and has forwarded a petition to Mr Zardari.

Pakistan's minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, himself a Christian, agrees.

"According to my own investigation, it was a personal dispute and she did not commit blasphemy," he said.

Human rights campaigners have documented similar cases in the past, where the law has been abused as a way of settling local rivalries, and are now calling for repeal of legislation they believe is used to discriminate against religious minorities.

But in a country where 95 per cent of the population claim to be Muslim, few politicians want to risk the anger of hardliners.

Mr Bhatti said scrapping the law could give ammunition to militant groups intent on accusing the government in Islamabad of selling out.