ISLAMABAD — A surprise court intervention Monday in Pakistan could delay for years, or even scuttle, the chances of a presidential pardon for a Christian woman who's been condemned to death for blasphemy, lawyers and activists said.
The case of Asia Bibi has raised an international outcry, including a plea for mercy from Pope Benedict. The blasphemy law in majority-Muslim Pakistan is controversial. Its targets are mostly Christians and members of an Islamic minority sect known as Ahmedis, who often are convicted on seeming hearsay.
Human rights campaigners were critical of the government of President Asif Zardari for dithering on the issue of the pardon after indicating that Bibi would be absolved, while street protests and now a court judgment made it difficult or impossible. Zardari's pro-secular administration, elected in February 2008, remains fragile, reluctant to take on inflammatory issues.
The Lahore High Court issued an order Monday barring a presidential pardon for Bibi because an appeal was pending before it. Pakistani officials previously had strongly indicated that Bibi would be pardoned shortly and then freed. The religious minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, concluded in a report sent to the president last week that Bibi was innocent.
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But the issue has provoked strong passions in Pakistan, including street demonstrations by religious hard-liners, who proclaim that a blasphemy conviction is so grave that it must be punished by death.
"After an initial positive response (from the government) based on the values of human rights and natural justice, it appears that political expediency has won the day," said Ali Dayan Hasan, south Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based advocacy group. "As always, it seems that the most vulnerable are the most dispensable."
Earlier this month, a low-level court in Punjab province sentenced Bibi to be hanged for her crime. Monday's order, if maintained by the court, means that Zardari must wait until the full case comes before the Lahore High Court and possibly until it goes all the way to the Supreme Court in Islamabad. Bibi has an appeal to the Lahore High Court pending, but there's no date set for a hearing.
The order was an interim decision, and the government will get a chance to have its say next week. A private citizen, Shahid Iqbal, has challenged the presidential pardon, even though it hasn't been yet been issued.
"We brought this petition to ensure respect for the courts," said Iqbal's lawyer, Allah Bux Laghari. Bibi "has been declared guilty by a court. It should be up to the high court to evaluate the evidence."
Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of five, has spent a year and a half in jail already, and her family has been forced into hiding. A poor laborer, she was convicted of insulting the prophet Muhammad while quarreling with some Muslim neighbors. She's protested her innocence. The blasphemy law in Pakistan routinely is used to punish minorities over what instead are personal vendettas.
Zardari's Pakistan People's Party made an election commitment to revise the often-abused blasphemy law but as the Bibi case has progressed, it's stepped back from that pledge.
Asma Jahangir, the leading human rights lawyer in Pakistan, said the court shouldn't have passed an order over a possible future event.
"A stay order in anticipation of something is unheard-of," Jahangir said. "This was done by the high court to gain popularity."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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