ISLAMABAD // Pakistani officials are scrambling to avert the execution of a Christian woman convicted of making derogatory remarks against the Prophet Mohammed.
Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old peasant, was convicted and sentenced to hang by a district court in the eastern town of Nankana Sahib on November 7 under a blasphemy law enacted in the 1980s by General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, the former military ruler.
Salman Taseer, the governor and presidential representative in Punjab province, on Saturday visited the family of Ms Bibi at their home, apparently as a gesture of government sympathy.
He told journalists that he would petition the Pakistan president, Asif Ali Zardari, to pardon Ms Bibi.
Rana Sanaullah Khan, the provincial law minister, told Pakistani cable news channels on Saturday that he had reviewed the case and concluded that the conviction had been made on the basis of insufficient evidence.
She had been jailed for 14 months since being accused of blasphemy by two women she had argued with over a drink of water while picking cotton in a field.
The two women complained to the village's council of elders who, encouraged by the imam of the local mosque, extracted a confession from Ms Bibi.
The imam then filed a private complaint with the police.
However, one of the two women who had made the accusation against Ms Bibi did not testify in the district court. Instead, the conviction was obtained on the basis of the village elders' testimony that Ms Bibi had confessed to blasphemy.
"I am convinced that the conviction would be overturned on appeal," Mr Khan said.
He said the provincial government, which had sought the conviction in the district court, would not press its prosecution of the case when the Lahore High Court hears Ms Bibi's appeal.
Human-rights organisations and the Pakistani media have reacted to the death sentence with outrage, while local media have suggested that the case will reinforce international perceptions of Pakistan as an intolerant society that has given rise to terrorism.
The case also has sparked a wider debate about religious laws enacted by Gen Zia, which are now widely viewed as being discriminatory to Pakistan's religious minorities, who make up about five per cent of Pakistan's population.
The law was originally enacted in the late 19th century by the British colonial government to discourage communal violence and it defined blasphemy as "derogation of all religions".
The section introduced by Gen Zia, under which Ms Bibi was convicted, re-interpreted blasphemy as "remarks derogatory to the Prophet Mohammed and Islam".
The law was enacted in bad faith, said Salman Akram Raja, a prominent Supreme Court lawyer.
He said the law had been widely abused by Muslims to settle personal scores against non-Muslims, as was apparently the case with Ms Bibi. Allegations of blasphemy have frequently resulted in violence against Christians and Ahmedis, an outcast sect that considers itself Muslim.
At least eight Christians were killed and dozens of homes burnt down in 2009 riots in the eastern towns of Gojra and Kasur, following allegations that they had defiled the Quran.
Subsequent police investigations found that the Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, a militant Sunni Muslim group banned for attacks on Shia, had incited the riots.
"Since the law was enacted, more than half of all blasphemy cases have been against non-Muslims, who are just five per cent of the population. It is clear that this law is being used as a weapon of discrimination," said Mr Raja.
Following the 2009 anti-Christian riots, a committee of the federal parliament was tasked by the government with reviewing the blasphemy law.
However, there has been no progress because politicians fear a backlash from religious extremists - something they freely admit to.
"The politicians are terrified. They all acknowledge the law is wrong, and clearly a violation of Islamic jurisprudence, but they don't have the courage to stand up to the extremist clergy," said Javed Ahmed Ghamdi, a former member of the council of Islamic ideology, a state organisation.
For Ms Bibi, a presidential pardon or acquittal upon appeal has come too late, lawyers and human-rights organisations said.
"Past experience tells us that she won't be able to lead a normal life, if acquitted. She would be threatened by religious extremists and be in fear for her life, and would have to abandon her home and leave the country," said Mr Raja.