'Zardari to issue pardon or grant clemency to blasphemy convict Pak-Christian woman'

Lahore, Nov 25 (ANI): Aasia Bibi, the Pakistani-Christian woman sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy, will be granted a presidential pardon or clemency, an aide to President Asif Ali Zardari has said.

"President Zardari has followed the case of Aasia 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," the Christian Science Monitor quoted presidential spokesman Farahnaz Ispahani, as saying.

"Pakistan is a nation of many faiths and religions, and all Pakistanis, no matter what their religion, are equal under the law... Pakistan remains committed to protecting its religious minorities," Ispahani added.

The statement, which gives the clearest indication so far of how the Pakistani government intends to act, follows a public appeal by the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who said he would petition the president to seek Aasia's release, as well as Pakistan's minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, who has investigated the alleged incident of blasphemy and found the convict 'innocent'.

According to Bhatti, the case will be brought before Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who will then present his advice to the President. Zardari may then choose to issue a pardon, if a higher court has not overturned the ruling by that stage.

Bhatti has also assured Aasia's family that his ministry would protect her, saying that she was innocent according to his research, and that he submit a comprehensive report to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani within a week and plead for mercy in her case.

Aasia, a 45 year-old mother of five, who has already spent an year-and-a-half in jail on charges of insulting the prophet Muhammad and the Quran, was due to be executed by hanging on November 8 after 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. Aasia denied the accusations, claiming ignorance of Islamic knowledge.

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI had called for Aasia's release, and said that Christians in Pakistan "are often victims of violence and discrimination."

Nadeem Anthony, a senior Christian member of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), said that Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which were strengthened under the tenure of Islamist dictator General 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 added.

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, the CSM report said. 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, it added. (ANI)

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