Sidra Shahzadi, daughter of Christian woman Aasia Bibi who had been sentenced to death, talks to The Associated Press after meeting with Pakistani minister for Minority Affairs in Islamabad. - AP Photo

WASHINGTON, Nov 26: Pakistanis living in the United States have joined human rights groups in urging the government to release Aasia Bibi and reconsider the laws that discriminate against minorities.

“We condemn the abuse of the blasphemy law and request President Asif Ali Zardari not to accede to the threats made by certain religious groups and award imminent clemency to Aasia Bibi,” said the Pakistani-American Public Affairs Committee, an umbrella organisation representing a dozen groups. In a recent meeting of its executive board, the Christian League of Pakistan in America also “strongly condemned the victimisation of innocent people under the blasphemy law”, reminding the government that “the entire world is awaiting a sane decision in the Aasia Bibi case”.

The organisation noted that President Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Human rights activist Asma Jehanghir and Punjab Governor Salman Taseer have all concluded that Aasia Bibi is innocent.

These and other Pakistani leaders also have realised that the blasphemy law discriminates against religious minorities, said a statement issued by the Christian League in Philadelphia.

“This law encourages certain elements which institutionalise intolerance in the name of religion and spread social persecution and legal discrimination,” observed the Pakistani American Public Affairs Committee. “As it stands, this law with its ambiguity harms Pakistan and its’ citizens.”

The group warned that such news emanating from Pakistan “hinders its stature in rest of the world, which in turn negatively impacts its economic stability and trade practices”. The committee referred to a study by the National Commission for Justice and Peace, which reported that a total of 964 people had been charged under these laws from 1986 to 2009. Out of them, 479 were Muslims, 340 Qadianis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus, and 10 of other religions.

The report also noted that although none of those charged under the laws has been executed; 32 people charged with blasphemy have been extra-judicially killed.

PAPAC noted that last July, Lahore High Court Chief Justice Khawaja Sharif while overturning a blasphemy case, said that “the treatment meted out to the woman was an insult to humanity and the government; and that civil organisations should be vigilant enough to help such people”.

The group urged the larger society in Pakistan to educate the masses of the virtue of tolerance.

“Pakistanis must start a meaningful and focused dialogue to look at how the blasphemy laws are being abused and thus violating the basic premise of their creation – to protect minorities.”

PAPAC also asked Pakistan’s legislators to amend and remove ambiguity and legal discrimination from Section 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code which covers the blasphemy provisions.

Meanwhile, a leading US human rights group called on Pakistan’s government to abolish the blasphemy law and other discriminatory legislation.

The government should also take legal action against militant groups responsible for threats and violence against minorities and other vulnerable groups, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said.

Referring to Aasia Bibi’s conviction, the group noted that she had already “suffered greatly and should never have been put behind bars”.

Amnesty International, USA, also issued a statement on Friday, seeking Aasia Bibi’s release and revision of the law under which this mother of five was convicted this month.

“Critics say that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are used to persecute Christian and other minorities,” the group observed.

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