ISLAMABAD – A Pakistani Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam is innocent, a government minister investigating the case said Monday, adding he was hopeful she would be granted a presidential pardon and be freed.
The sentence against Asia Bibi has called new attention to Pakistan's blasphemy law, which critics say is used to persecute minorities, fan religious extremism and settle personal vendettas.
Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of five, has already spent 1 1/2 years in jail.
A court sentenced her Nov. 8 to hang after convicting her of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
She says she was falsely accused by a group of village Muslim women angry with her after a dispute over whether they could share the same water bowl.
Pope Benedict XVI appealed last week for her release, and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has asked for a review of the facts of the case, raising the possibility of a presidential pardon.
Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, who is preparing the report for Zardari, said his preliminary investigations indicate that Bibi was wrongly accused.
"I am convinced that she is innocent and she was wrongly sentenced to death," Bhatti said.
A provincial official delivered a petition from Bibi for clemency to the president's office on Monday, Bhatti said. He said he will submit his own report to Zardari on Wednesday, and then the president will make a decision.
"I am optimistic about her release," he said.
Asia's lawyer has filed an appeal with a higher court in the southern city of Lahore, but she could be freed by a presidential pardon at any time.
Pakistan's Christians, who make up less than 5 percent of the Muslim-majority country's 175 million people, are frequently the targets of accusers invoking the law, Bhatti said.
Associated Press writer Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.