Pakistan minister backs Christian mother probe

A Pakistani cabinet minister on Thursday called for a thorough re-investigation and fair appeal for a Christian mother sentenced to death for blasphemy after the Pope called for her release.

On November 8, Asia Bibi was sentenced to hang in Pakistan’s central province Punjab after being accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed in 2009.

Pakistan’s minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, told AFP that Asia had filed an appeal at the Lahore high court, the highest court in Punjab.

“We have requested the Punjab government that the trial should be fair in the high court. She must also be provided security in jail,” he said.

Asia’s supporters say the case is baseless and that her first trial “was not heard properly,” Bhatti said.

“We have, therefore, asked the Punjab government that the case be reinvestigated properly.”

Pope Benedict XVI this week called for her release and said Christians in Pakistan were “often victims of violence and discrimination.”

“I feel close to Asia Bibi and her family and I ask that she be released as soon as possible,” he said on Wednesday.

Pakistan has yet to execute anyone for blasphemy, but the case spotlights a controversial law which rights activists say encourages Islamist extremism in a Muslim country on the front line of the US-led war on Al-Qaeda.

Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has said he was told during a visit to Islamabad last week that Pakistan was committed to changing the blasphemy law and promised to join the fight to save Asia.

Asia’s husband Ashiq Masih confirmed to AFP that the appeal had been filed, but said the family had no contact from the government.

In June 2009, his wife was asked to fetch water while out working in the fields. But Muslim women labourers objected, saying that as a non-Muslim, she should not touch the water bowl.

A few days later the women went to a local cleric and alleged that Asia made derogatory remarks about theProphet Mohammed.

She was arrested in Ittanwalai village and prosecuted under Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which carries the death penalty.

Rights activists and minority pressure groups said it was the first time that a woman had been sentenced to hang in Pakistan for blasphemy, although a Muslim couple were jailed for life last year.

Only around three percent of Pakistan’s population of 167 million is estimated to be non-Muslim.