x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Zardari calls for reform of blasphemy law

The Pakistani president's comments come on the heels of a report on the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who had been sentenced to die for what a government investigation found to be trumped-up charges by angry Muslim neighbours.

ISLAMABAD // The Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, has called for reforms to a controversial blasphemy law after a government investigation concluded that a Christian woman had been sentenced to death on concocted charges.

The woman, Asia Bibi, 45, was convicted of passing derogatory remarks against the Prophet Mohammed and Islam, and sentenced to death by hanging, by a district court on November 7.

In a report to the president on Thursday, the minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, concluded that the blasphemy case against Ms Bibi was the result of personal enmity with her Muslim neighbours in the eastern district of Nankana Sahib.

In the report, Mr Bhatti, himself a Christian, said the story told in the police report was concocted and in bad faith. He recommended that the president grant Ms Bibi a pardon and suspend her sentence.

Mr Zardari asked the minister to form a committee of religious scholars and legal experts to recommend reforms to the law, so that it could not be abused for personal or political ends in future, the official Associated Press of Pakistan reported.

Mr Bhatti, will lead the committee, which will also lobby members of parliament for their support for the reforms.

Gen Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, military ruler between 1977 and his death in 1988, enacted the law and more than half the blasphemy cases since registered have been against non-Muslims, who make up just five per cent of Pakistan's population.

However, the government faces an arduous task in enacting reforms to the law because of pressure from religious groups, including relatively moderate Sufis.

They threatened the governor and presidential representative of eastern Punjab province, Salman Taseer, after he visited and sympathised with Ms Bibi's family, and said he would petition the president to pardon her.

Two groups have issued edicts declaring Mr Taseer an apostate, saying the edict would not be lifted until he sought forgiveness and repented, the groups said.

The groups did not threaten violence.

Threats to the family of Ms Bibi have prompted them to go into hiding, while she has been placed in solitary confinement in jail. Mr Bhatti recommended that her family be provided with security.

Notably, the major religious parties have been restrained in their response.

The Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, which represents the orthodox Deobandi school of Sunnis, is a coalition partner of Mr Zardari's Pakistan People's Party and has so far refrained from comment.

A veteran senator of the party, Maulana Mohammed Khan Sheerani, was on Thursday appointed chairman of the council of Islamic ideology, a state organisation that interprets Sharia law.

The Jama'at-i-Islami, a party ideologically aligned with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, has called for presidential powers of pardon to be withdrawn in blasphemy cases but indicated it would be open to amendments in the law made in consultation with parliament and religious scholars.

Some moderate scholars, notable among them Javed Ahmed Ghamdi, have declared the blasphemy law as contrary to Sharia and the tradition of the Prophet Mohammed.

Lawyers have said the law violates constitutional provisions guaranteeing human rights for religious minorities.

The Punjab law minister, Rana Sanaullah Khan, last week said his government would not press its prosecution of Ms Bibi when she appeals to the Lahore High Court.