Protesters hold up placards while demanding the release of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, at a rally in Lahore November 21, 2010. – Reuters

LAHORE: A Pakistani cabinet minister on Monday ratched up the pressure on President Asif Ali Zardari to pardon a Christian mother of five sentenced to death for blasphemy.

Aasia Bibi was sentenced to hang in Pakistan's central province of Punjab this month after being found guilty of insulting the Prophet Mohammed.

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

"According to my own investigation, it was a personal dispute and she did not commit blasphemy," said Pakistan's minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, who is himself a Christian.

He said Zardari had commissioned him to investigate the case. “I will hopefully submit my report to the president on Wednesday and recommend to him to grant pardon to Aasia Bibi”.

“Bibi is innocent and the case against her is baseless.”

Punjab governor Salman Taseer on Sunday became the first senior government official to appeal to Zardari for clemency after visiting Bibi in prison.

“We have forwarded her petition to President Asif Ali Zardari and it is with him,” Taseer told AFP. “She is poor and belongs to a minority community and should be pardoned.”

But the presidency told AFP on Monday it had received no petition.

Rights activists say Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, which is punishable by death, encourages extremism in the Muslim country.

The case began in June 2009 when Bibi was asked to fetch water while out working in the fields. 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 after Muslim women complained that she made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed.

Rights activists and pressure groups say it is the first time that a woman had been sentenced to hang in Pakistan for blasphemy.

Only around three per cent of Pakistan's population of 167 million are estimated to be non-Muslim. – AFP

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