by Deborah Hastings
A Pakistani Christian mother sentenced to hang for committing blasphemy is not guilty and should be granted clemency by President Asif Ali Zardari, a top government official says.
Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti stepped into an international controversy that already includes the pope and human rights organizations. Bhatti, who investigated the case at the president's behest, says his inquiry indicates that Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of five, was falsely accused.
"I am convinced that she is innocent and she was wrongly sentenced to death," Bhatti said, according to The Associated Press.
Earlier this month, Bibi was sentenced to execution after being charged with insulting the Prophet Muhammad in 2009. The woman said her ordeal stemmed from a violent argument in which she was beaten after bringing water to fellow female villagers working in a field. They refused to drink it, she said, because it had been handled by a Christian.
K.M. Chaudary, AP
Bibi's ordeal has also inflamed a long-burning debate over the Muslim nation's blasphemy laws. Critics say the laws fan the flames of Islamic extremism, encourage religious persecution and allow citizens to use it as a means to settle personal vendettas, the AP reported. About 4 percent of the country's 175 million people are Christians.
She is the first woman to be ordered to death under laws that forbid insulting the Muslim religion, according to Agence France-Presse.
Sponsored LinksLast week, Pope Benedict XVI pleaded for Bibi's freedom, saying Christians in Pakistan "are often victims of violence and discrimination."
During his regular public audience at the Vatican, the pope told worshipers, "I feel close to Asia Bibi and her family and I ask that she be released as soon as possible," the BBC reported. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also asked that she be pardoned.
The governor of central Pakistan's Punjab province, where Bibi lives in a poor village, also chimed in, saying he had petitioned the government for clemency.
President Zardari will receive the minority minister's report on Wednesday. "I am optimistic about her release," Bhatti said, according to the AP.
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