Adrees Latif/Reuters

The daughters of Asia Bibi posed with an image of their mother outside their residence in Sheikhupura, located in Pakistan’s Punjab Province.

November 22, 2010

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Christian woman who was sentenced to death by a municipal court for blasphemy against Islam could be pardoned by the president in the next few days, a senior government official said Monday.

Asia Bibi, 45, an agricultural worker and mother of five, is the first woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy, according to human rights groups.

The governor of Punjab Province, Salmaan Taseer, where Ms. Bibi has been in jail for more than a year, said he had forwarded a petition presenting the facts of the case to President Asif Ali Zardari on Monday.

Mr. Taseer, a political ally of Mr. Zardari, said he believed that Ms. Bibi had been unfairly treated since she was arrested last year. “I hope the president will pardon Asia in a day or two,” Mr. Taseer said.

The case against Ms. Bibi began in the fields of Ittan Wali, a village 60 miles west of Lahore, when agricultural workers picking berries with her protested that she had been asked by a landlord to fetch water for them to drink.

The other workers declined to touch the water bowl because Ms. Bibi had carried the container, according to accounts by her husband, Ashiq Masih, and others.

“Suddenly she saw men and women walking towards her with angry gestures,” Mr. Masih, a laborer, said in a telephone interview.

“They started beating her and shouting that she had made derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad,” he said.

A mob dragged Ms. Bibi to a local police station, where she was jailed and charged with blasphemy, Mr. Masih said. “My wife has not done anything,” he said.

Announcing the guilty verdict this month, Judge Naveed Iqbal ruled in a Punjab municipal court that Ms. Bibi had not been wrongly accused, saying that “the chances of false implication of the accused are totally ruled out.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has documented scores of cases in which men have been harassed for being Christian or for being members of the Ahmadi sect, a minority group within Islam, and then accused of blasphemy. The mere fact of being a Christian or an Ahmadi in Pakistan makes an individual vulnerable to the draconian blasphemy law, the commission says.

Adding pressure to the Pakistan authorities to overturn Ms. Bibi’s sentence, Pope Benedict XVI appealed last week for her to be freed unconditionally.

A spokesman for Mr. Zardari said the petition from Mr. Taseer had not reached the president’s office yet.

“We know what to do,” said the spokesman, Farhatullah Babar. “The president will take an appropriate decision when the mercy petition is received.”

It was also possible that the Lahore High Court could overturn the ruling in the case, lawyers familiar with blasphemy cases said.

Human rights groups say that more than 20 men have been sentenced to death under the blasphemy law, most of them Christians. None have been executed.

Under the blasphemy law, a high court must confirm a death sentence from a lower court, lawyers say. Some of those convicted remain on death row awaiting appeal to the high court, they say. Some mainstream Muslims have also been charged with blasphemy, according to the Human Rights Commission.

Even if Ms. Bibi is pardoned or the Lahore High Court overturns the sentence, there are concerns about her safety. Many people acquitted on blasphemy charges continue to be hounded and are forced to move, change their identity or hide, the commission says.

A 22-year-old man acquitted on blasphemy charges was shot to death last week, two days after being released from jail. The man, Imran Latif, was charged with desecrating the Koran.

In an editorial titled “Pakistan’s Salem Witch Hunt” that criticized the blasphemy law, The Daily Times, an English-language newspaper, described the shooting of Mr. Latif as “sanctioning the free hand of murderers.”

Instead of denouncing the murder of Mr. Latif, the investigating officer in the case had said that “no Muslim tolerates a man who commits blasphemous acts,” the editorial said.

Many attempts have been made to revise the blasphemy law, including during the recent military rule of President Pervez Musharraf. But lawmakers have stalled in the face of strong opposition from religious parties.

Pakistan was founded in 1947 as a Muslim nation, but one where its founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, said its citizens could practice all religions freely.

In the 1980s, under the military dictatorship of Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, the blasphemy law was introduced as part of the Islamization of society.

“This is not Jinnah’s law,” Mr. Taseer said Monday, referring to the contradiction between the intention of the nation’s founder and the blasphemy law. “We want Jinnah’s Pakistan, not a mullah’s Pakistan.”

Mr. Taseer said the government expected a backlash by Islamic religious leaders and extremist groups if Ms. Bibi was pardoned. “We are struggling for Pakistan’s soul,” he said.