Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan

LAHORE, Pakistan (AFP) – A Pakistani court has sentenced to death a Christian mother of five for blasphemy, the first such conviction of a woman and sparking protests from rights groups Thursday.

Asia Bibi, 45, was sentenced Monday by a local court in Nankana district in Pakistan's central province Punjab, about 75 kilometres (47 miles) west of the country's cultural capital of Lahore.

Pakistan has yet to execute anyone for blasphemy, but the case spotlights the Muslim country's controversial laws on the subject which rights activists say encourages Islamist extremism in a nation wracked by Taliban attacks.

Asia's case dates back to June 2009 when she was asked to fetch water while out working in the fields. But a group of Muslim women labourers objected, saying that as a non-Muslim, she should not touch the water bowl.

A few days later the women went to a local cleric and alleged that Asia made made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed. The cleric went to local police, who opened an investigation.

She was arrested in Ittanwalai village and prosecuted under Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which carries the death penalty.

Sentencing her to hang, Judge Naveed Iqbal "totally ruled out" any chance that Asia was falsely implicated and said there were "no mitigating circumstances", according to a copy of the verdict seen by AFP.

Husband Ashiq Masih, 51, told AFP that he would appeal her death sentence, which needs to be upheld by the Lahore high court, the highest tribunal in Punjab, before it can be carried out.

"The case is baseless and we will file an appeal," he said.

The couple have two sons and three daughters.

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.

Human rights activists want the controversial legislation repealed, saying it is exploited for personal enmity and encourages Islamist extremism.

"The blasphemy law is absolutely obscene and it needs to be repealed in totality," Human Rights Watch spokesman Ali Dayan Hasan told AFP.

"It is primarily used against vulnerable groups that face social and political discrimination. Heading that category are religious minorities and heterodox Muslim sects," he said.

Asked about Asia's case at a press conference in Islamabad on Thursday, visiting Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said he was unaware of the details but would raise the matter with Pakistan's minorities minister.

"The Italian position has always been against the death penalty," he told reporters. He said he raised the problems faced by Christian minorities during his talks with his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi.

"I believe they should not misuse the law of blasphemy to discriminate against religious minorities and this is a point I share with my colleague -- this is a key point for me."

Around three percent of Pakistan's population of 167 million is estimated to be non-Muslim.

Last July, two Christian brothers accused of writing a blasphemous pamphlet critical of the Prophet Mohammed were shot dead outside a court in Punjab.

Pastor Rashid Emmanuel, 32, and his brother Sajjad, were killed as they left a court hearing in Faisalabad city, where hundreds of Muslim protesters had demanded they be sentenced to death.

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