KARACHI, Pakistan — Hopes were raised Monday that a Pakistani Christian woman, convicted of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad this month and sentenced to death, will be pardoned soon, after government officials said they expected her to be freed.
The case raised an international outcry, including a plea for mercy from Pope Benedict XVI. However, even if Asia Bibi, who's spent a year and a half in jail on the charge, is granted a presidential pardon, the blasphemy law remains in place in Pakistan, a majority of whose population is Muslim. Critics charge that the law is an instrument for terrorizing minorities, leading to dozens of people being jailed each year on trumped-up charges. The targets are mostly Christians and an Islamic minority sect known as Ahmedis.
Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minority affairs, said he was convinced that Bibi was innocent, and the president's top representative in Punjab province, where the conviction occurred, predicted an imminent award of clemency. President Asif Ali Zardari has the power to overturn punishment the courts hand down to anyone.
Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, said in an interview: "The president has made it clear that she will not be punished. He will grant her a pardon."
The furor over the case has given the government an opportunity to abolish or amend the law.
"This is a disgraceful case; it is a disgraceful law. It has to be repealed," Taseer said.
Bibi, a poor 45-year-old mother of five, was jailed after a row with some Muslim women in Sheikhupura, a district near the city of Lahore in the eastern province of Punjab. She and the women argued while laboring in a field, after they refused to drink water that Bibi had fetched because she was a Christian. They accused her of saying something insulting about Muhammad, leading to her incarceration and then to her sentencing to hang by a low-level local court on Nov. 8.
Bhatti, the minister for minority affairs, is due to present a report on the case to the president this week, after his own investigation.
"She was wrongly sentenced to death," Bhatti said Monday. "I am optimistic about her release."
Minorities routinely are convicted in blasphemy cases on hearsay and scant evidence, the charges often made to settle personal scores or unrelated disputes such as property ownership. The charge itself often is enough for vigilantes. Last week, a 22-year-old man was shot and killed outside his home in Lahore after being granted bail on a blasphemy charge.
"Asia Bibi's release will not stop the injustice. That won't end until this heinous law is repealed," said Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Any attempt to change the blasphemy law probably will face opposition on the streets in religiously conservative Pakistan, while even in parliament it's uncertain whether the votes and political will exist to push through major reform. Minorities make up less than 5 percent of Pakistan's population of 180 million.
The law was introduced in British colonial times, and was broadened to impose the death penalty in the 1980s by the Islamic fundamentalist military dictator Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq.
The Pakistan People's Party, which leads the ruling coalition, has a commitment to repeal the blasphemy law but it's made no concerted attempt to do so since it came to power two years ago. The attitude of the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is so far ambivalent.
"The law of the land should be followed, but we don't want injustices," said Sadiq ul-Farooq, a spokesman for Sharif's party.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Check out McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan coverage
McClatchy Newspapers 2010