LAHORE, Pakistan (AFP) – A top Pakistan government official Saturday backed a Christian mother’s appeal against a death sentence for blasphemy, saying he hoped President Asif Ali Zardari would pardon her.

Asia Bibi was sentenced to hang in Pakistan’s central province of Punjab earlier this month after being accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed in 2009.

Punjab governor Salman Taseer met Bibi in prison and told a televised press conference afterwards that he would personally pass on her request for clemency.

“I will soon meet President Asif Ali Zardari and hand him over Bibi’s appeal,” he said. “I hope that the president will pardon her.”

The contents of the appeal were not immediately known, but Taseer said he was supporting it on humanitarian grounds.

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.

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

Minister for minority affairs Shahbaz Bhatti earlier this week asked the Punjab government for a thorough re-investigation and a fair appeal hearing for the mother of five.

At the Lahore high court, the top court in Punjab, Bibi has filed a separate appeal against her conviction.

Her lawyer S.K. Chaudhry said the court would take up the case next week.

In June 2009, Bibi 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.

Bibi was later arrested by police and prosecuted under the Pakistan Penal Code on a complaint by Muslim women that she made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed.

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 are estimated to be non-Muslim.


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