Family Leads Outcry at Blasphemy Death Penalty

Article excerpt

Anger at Pakistan's 'discriminatory' laws grows as the Christian Asia Bibi appeals against sentence for insulting Mohamed

Campaigners in Pakistan say the case of Asia Bibi - the first woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy - highlights the need for urgent reform of laws that are routinely used to persecute minorities and settle grudges.

The 45-year-old Christian, who has at least two children, was sentenced to death by a court in Sheikhupura, near Lahore, after prosecutors accused her of insulting the Prophet Mohamed and promoting her own faith. Her family have rejected the allegations and launched an appeal. "We have never ever insulted the Prophet or Islamic scripture, and we will contest the charges," said her husband Ashiq Masih.

While Mrs Bibi may be the first woman to be sentenced to death, Pakistan's blasphemy laws - particularly section 295C of the penal code, introduced by the late dictator Zia ul-Haq - are commonly used against both non-Muslims and Muslim minorities.

Earlier this year, police reinforcements had to be called to Faisalabad when two Christians charged with blasphemy were shot dead outside the court. In 1998, John Joseph, the then Catholic Bishop of Faisalabad, committed suicide to protest against the treatment of Christians.

The campaign to confront the country's blasphemy laws has existed for some years but activists say the movement is hampered by the danger of being accused of undermining Islam. Because of fear of religious conservatives, some of those who would like to see the laws scrapped feel compelled to call for reform rather than repeal.

Human Rights Watch is among the groups that have called for sections 295 and 298 to be scrapped. "Asia Bibi's case should serve as a wake-up call to Pakistan's independent judiciary which urgently needs to address bigotry and incompetence in its ranks and to the government that needs to find the political will to repeal," said the group's Pakistan spokesman, Ali Dayan Hasan.

"The laws are discriminatory and intended as such and are used for precisely that purpose. So, the issue is not of their misuse but of the laws being on the statute books at all. Vague all- encompassing wording allows the laws to be used as an instrument of political and social coercion, legal discrimination and persecution."

Veteran human rights campaigner Asma Jahangir, who was recently elected head of the country's powerful Supreme Court Bar Association, is among those who have defended people accused of blasphemy, most famously in the case of a 14-year-old boy, Salamat Masih, who was accused of writing blasphemous words on the wall of a mosque. …