November 20, 2010 / 1:36 PM / in 8 years

Condemned Christian woman seeks mercy in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan on charges of blaspheming Islam said on Saturday she had been wrongfully accused by neighbours due to a personal dispute, and appealed to the president to pardon her.

Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi is seen in an undated photo handed out by family members in Punjab province November 13, 2010. REUTERS/Handout

Asia Bibi, mother of four, is the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law which rights groups say is often exploited by religious extremists as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.

The 36-year-old farm worker was taken into custody by police in June last year and was convicted by a lower court on Nov. 8. She has been in prison since then, with her case drawing international media attention as well as appeals by human rights groups, and, according to Pakistani media, Pope Benedict.

“I told police that I have not committed any blasphemy and this is a wrong accusation, but they did not listen to me,” Bibi told reporters after meeting with Salman Taseer, governor of the central Punjab province where she is imprisoned.

“I have small kids. I have wrongly been implicated in this false case,” she said in the prison, covered in a cloak that only revealed her eyes.

Taseer said he would take up Bibi’s case with President Asif Ali Zardari, who has the constitutional power to pardon her.

“Inshallah (God willing) her appeal will be accepted,” Taseer said, adding that he had studied Bibi’s case and found that she had not committed any blasphemy.

“She is a helpless Christian woman. She can’t legally defend herself because she does not have resources. Implicating such helpless minorities in such cases amounts to ridiculing the constitution of Pakistan,” Taseer added.

On Friday, Zardari asked the ministry for minorities affairs to compile a report on Bibi’s case within three days after Pakistani media suggested the accusations stemmed from a village dispute.

Bibi confirmed she had been involved in a dispute over livestock with her neighbours, but would not give any more details. Pakistani media said the quarrel began when some women who worked on the same farm refused to drink water from a bowl used by Bibi, saying they would not drink or eat anything a non-Muslim has touched.

Bibi said her opponents physically abused her before taking her to court. “They slapped me...They tried to strangle me. Their women also pulled my hair,” she said in a choked voice.

Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation of more than 170 million people. Religious minorities — mostly Christians — account for roughly four percent of the population. Christians have long complained about the blasphemy law saying it offers them no protection. The law makes it a crime to speak ill of Islam and its Prophet Mohammad, punishable by death, and makes no reference to other religions. Blasphemy convictions are common in Pakistan, although the death sentence has never been carried out. Most convictions are thrown out on appeal, but angry mobs have killed many people accused of blasphemy.

Two Christian brothers accused of writing a blasphemous letter against the Prophet Mohammad were gunned down outside a court in the eastern city of Faisalabad in July.

(Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Miral Fahmy)

For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here

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