Islamists fight efforts to save 'blasphemer'

Hundreds of Islamist hardliners took to the streets of Pakistan’s main cities yesterday in support of the country’s prejudicial blasphemy laws and against two leading politicians they have threatened for speaking out against the persecution of a Christian woman.

At rallies in Karachi, Lahore and other cities, the crowds of protestors warned the political class against any attempt to amend or repeal the laws. They also chanted slogans denouncing Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, and Sherry Rehman, a liberal parliamentarian.

Mr Taseer and Ms Rehman were singled out for speaking out against the treatment of Aasia Bibi, an illiterate 45-year-old farmhand who has been handed down a death sentence for allegedly insulting Islam and its prophet. Mr Taseer visited her in prison and called for her to be pardoned. Ms Rehman has submitted a bill in parliament, seeking to amend the blasphemy laws. Both politicians are from the ruling Pakistan People’s Party.

Human rights groups say that the blasphemy laws are an abusive instrument invoked to punish Pakistan’s most vulnerable. They have overwhelmingly been used to settle political vendattas or afford Islamist extremists protection when they have targeted religious minorities.

At a conference of major religious groups this week, which even included some mainstream politicians, Ms Rehman was threatened, that if she did not withdraw the bill she has submitted to parliament, “she would be besieged by the people of Pakistan”. Ms Rehman’s seeks to offer protection to minority groups, particularly the removal of the death sentence.

Mr Taseer, the outspoken governor of Punjab, was condemned by the same groups for “extending unnecessary support” to Aasia Bibi, the accused Christian woman. Last week, the Almi Jamaat Ahle Sunnat, another fundamentalist group, declared Mr Taseer an “apostate” for calling for Aasia Bibi’s release and “implementing the western conspiracy against the blasphemy laws”. For fundamentalists, the charge of apostasy is punishable by death.

“The threats against Salmaan Taseer and Sherry Rehman are both unacceptable and appalling,” said Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch. “It is a measure of the state’s impotence in the face of extremist groups that such high-profile public figures, merely standing up for fundamental rights, can be threatened with such impunity.”

Ms Rehman, a former information minister, says that she remains resolute in her stand and won’t be cowed by the threats. “I really can’t be coerced into silencing myself like this,” she told The Independent. “It’s my freedom as a legislator to do as I do. If they want to talk, there’s no issue. But to use coercion is unacceptable.”

Mr Taseer responded with characteristic insouciance. “It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “Who the hell are these illiterare maulvis to decide to whether i’m a Muslim or not?” Earlier, he tweeted: “Tomorrow mullahs r demonstrating against me...Thousands of beards screaming 4 my head.What a great feeling!”

The Aasia Bibi case led to the eruption of fierce divisions in the media, clergy, and the government. Notably, while a number of notable religious scholars have bravely spoken out against the blasphemy laws, Babar Awan, the PPP’s Law Minister, has said he will not allow it to be amended or repealed.

Even if Aasia Bibi’s conviction is overturned by the higher courts, or if she is pardoned by President Asif Ali Zardari, her life may remain imperiled. “She will probably not be able to live in her community for some time,” said Ms Rehman. “She will have to be moved, or will continue to face threats.”

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