Official: Pakistani Christian Woman on Death Row Is Innocent

Correction Appended

Preliminary findings from an investigation into the case of Asia Bibi (also referred to as Asia Noreen by some media), the first woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan, show that she is innocent, said a government official in charge of the investigation on Monday.

Federal Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti said the conclusion is based on preliminary findings and a final report will be submitted to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Wednesday.

"We are standing with them to provide them justice and I personally believe that Asia Bibi will be freed," Bhatti said Saturday, according to The Associated Press.

Bibi has not been released yet despite reports from some Christian human rights groups and media outlets, including from a broadcast news channel in Pakistan.

Even within the city of Sheikhupuru, where Bibi is being held, there has been confusion whether she has been released or not. reports that people gathered near the prison in Sheikhupuru on Tuesday morning to find out if Bibi was released. The prison officers told the crowd that Bibi is still in her cell.

Bibi has been imprisoned for one-and-a-half years without being allowed to give her statement in court. On Saturday, she signed a petition appealing for the president's mercy. The request by the 45-year-old mother of five, of which two are biological, was delivered to Zardari by Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer.

"I have small children," pleaded Bibi to reporters Saturday from her prison in Punjab province. "For God's sake, please set me free."

The now international story began with Muslim women in Bibi's village accusing her of blasphemy against the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. Bibi and her family, however, said she did no such thing. Instead, they said she was falsely accused as revenge over a petty argument she had with fellow field workers.

According to Bibi and her family, the incident that led to her current situation occurred in June 2009. She was picking fruit in the field with fellow Muslim workers and went to get water for the group. Upon returning, the Muslim women in the field refused to drink the water because the container was touched by a Christian.

Bibi was offended and argued with the women, but then afterwards thought nothing of the incident. However, a few days later dozens of Muslims dragged her away.

Her 18-year-old daughter, Sidra, said she witnessed her mother being dragged to a mosque where she was forced to convert to Islam and beaten when she refused.

Bibi's family was only one of two Christian households in the village, her husband Ashiq Masih told The Associated Press. But the other Christian family moved away after Bibi was arrested. Masih said he is concerned about his family's safety in the village.

While blasphemy laws have regularly been abused in Pakistan to settle grudges against religious minorities, punishments usually range from imprisonment, fines, or beatings. Death sentences that have been issued for blasphemy have all been thrown out upon appeal. There have been no executions for blasphemy in Pakistan. Bibi's case is unprecedented in that it marks the first time a woman was sentenced to hanging over a blasphemy accusation.

The case has provoked international condemnation of Pakistan's blasphemy law. Yet even before Bibi's case, there was criticism of the law but the Pakistani government refused to repeal it due to fear of a backlash by Islamic militants. Critics of the law hope that the negative media attention will push lawmakers to finally modify the law to punish those who falsely accuse people of blasphemy.

Christians make up less than five percent of Pakistan's population.

Correction:  Tuesday, November 23, 2010:

An article on November 22, 2010, about Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi being freed from prison incorrectly reported that she was released by a presidential pardon on Monday based on reports by several Christian human rights groups and Pakistani media outlets. The Christian Post confirmed with a Christian persecution watchdog group (which requested not to be named) and other media outlets that Bibi has not been released at the time of this correction.

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