By Waqar Hussain
LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistani Muslims threatened protests and anarchy if the government pardons a Christian mother sentenced to death for blasphemy, calling hundreds of demonstrators onto the streets on Friday.
Demonstrators marched in the eastern city of Lahore after the most influential Sunni Muslim alliance in Pakistan urged the government not to grant mother-of-five Aasia Bibi clemency.
A crowd of several hundred called for “Jihad” and pledged to sacrifice their lives to protect the honour of the Prophet Mohammad, an AFP reporter said.
The rally was organised by a subsidiary of banned charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), which the United Nations has blacklisted as a terrorist organisation.
“We will hold nationwide protests if the government pardons the Christian woman,” the subsidiary’s chief coordinator, Qari Yaqub, told participants.
Politicians and conservative clerics have been at loggerheads over whether President Asif Ali Zardari should pardon Bibi, who was sentenced on November 8 to hang under controversial blasphemy laws for defaming the Prophet Mohammed.
“The pardon would lead to anarchy in the country,” the head of the Sunni Ittehad Council, Sahibzada Fazal Kareem, told AFP.
“Our stand is very clear that this punishment cannot be waived.”
The council opposes Taliban militants, which are fighting government troops in parts of northwest Pakistan, and has also organised a protest march against deadly attacks on Sufi shrines blamed on Islamist hardliners.
Pakistan has yet to execute anyone for blasphemy, but the case exposes the deep faultlines in the conservative country on a law that rights activists say encourages Islamist extremism in a nation wracked by Taliban attacks.
Minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti presented a clemency plea to the government late Thursday on the grounds that the case against Bibi was based only on personal enmity.
Pope Benedict XVI has also called for Bibi’s release and said Christians in Pakistan were “often victims of violence and discrimination”.
But Farhatullah Babar, spokesman for Zardari, hinted Friday that the presidency would instead wait for Bibi’s appeal in the Lahore high court.
“The summary for a pardon has not yet been received from the prime minister. It is also premature as a sentence awarded by a session (court) cannot be implemented until it is endorsed by a high court,” Babar said.
Most of those convicted of blasphemy in Pakistan have their sentences overturned or commuted on appeal through the courts.
Bibi was arrested in June 2009 after Muslim women labourers refused to drink from a bowl of water she was asked to fetch while out working in the fields.
Days later, the women complained that she made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed. Bibi was set upon by a mob, arrested by police and sentenced on November 8.
Rights activists and pressure groups say it is the first time that a woman had been sentenced to hang in Pakistan for blasphemy.
Only around three percent of Pakistan’s population of 167 million are estimated to be non-Muslim.