Pakistani President Pardons Christian Woman on Death Row

( [email protected] ) Nov 22, 2010 02:26 PM EST

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Monday pardoned Asia Bibi (also referred to as Asia Noreen by some media), the first woman sentenced to death for blasphemy.

Bibi, who had been imprisoned for one-and-a-half years without being allowed to give her statement in court, was released soon after the presidential pardon.

“This is the only acceptable outcome to what has been a travesty of justice from the outset,” said Nasir Saeed, coordinator for U.K.-based Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). “Asia Bibi should never have been charged with blasphemy, let alone found guilty and sentenced to death.”

Saeed added, “The ordeal faced by her and her family is unimaginable to most people outside of Pakistan who are largely unaware of the abuse and discrimination faced by the tiny Christian minority there.”

Bibi had signed a petition Saturday appealing for the president’s mercy. The request by the 45-year-old mother of five, of which two are biological, was delivered to Zardari by Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer.

“I have small children,” pleaded Bibi to reporters Saturday from her prison in Punjab province. “For God’s sake, please set me free.”

The now international story began with Muslim women in Bibi’s village accusing her of blasphemy against the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. Bibi and her family, however, said she did no such thing. Instead, they said she was falsely accused as revenge over a petty argument she had with fellow field workers.

According to Bibi and her family, the incident that led to her current situation occurred in June 2009. She was picking fruit in the field with fellow Muslim workers and went to get water for the group. Upon returning, the Muslim women in the field refused to drink the water because the container was touched by a Christian.

Bibi was offended and argued with the women, but then afterwards thought nothing of the incident. However, a few days later dozens of Muslims dragged her away.

Her 18-year-old daughter, Sidra, said she witnessed her mother being dragged to a mosque where she was forced to convert to Islam and beaten when she refused.

Bibi’s family was only one of two Christian households in the village, her husband Ashiq Masih told The Associated Press. But the other Christian family moved away after Bibi was arrested. Masih said he is concerned about his family’s safety in the village.

While blasphemy laws have regularly been abused in Pakistan to settle grudges against religious minorities, punishments usually range from imprisonment, fines, or beatings. Death sentences that have been issued for blasphemy have all been thrown out upon appeal. There have been no executions for blasphemy in Pakistan. Bibi’s case is unprecedented in that it marks the first time a woman was sentenced to hanging over a blasphemy accusation.

The case has provoked international condemnation of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Yet even before Bibi’s case, there was criticism of the law but the Pakistani government refused to repeal it due to fear of a backlash by Islamic militants. Critics of the law hope that the negative media attention will push lawmakers to finally modify the law to punish those who falsely accuse people of blasphemy.

"The blasphemy laws smack in the face of democracy and human rights and only reinforce the notion that Christians and other religious minorities in the country are somehow inferior and less human,” said Saeed of CLAAS in the U.K.

“We are relieved and overjoyed at Asia Bibi’s release but so long as the blasphemy laws remain in place there is no telling when another innocent Christian will face being executed because of something they said.”

Christians make up less than five percent of Pakistan’s population.