ISLAMABAD – The family of a Pakistani Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam said Saturday they are hoping for a presidential pardon that could bring her home in time for Christmas.
The case against Asia Bibi — which started with a spat over a sip of water — has renewed calls for reform of Pakistan's blasphemy law, which critics say have been used to settle grudges, persecute minorities and fan religious extremism.
President Asif Ali Zardari has asked for a report on the case and could issue a pardon even before a court issues its decision on an appeal against the verdict, said Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's minister for minority affairs.
The 45-year-old mother of five appeared in a tearful televised briefing for reporters Saturday at the prison in Punjab province, declaring her innocence to reporters and maintaining the case stemmed from personal disputes that led to a false accusation.
"I have small children," pleaded Bibi, wearing a veil covering all but her eyes. "For God's sake, please set me free."
Bibi has been in prison for the last 1 1/2 years and on Nov. 8 became the first woman sentenced to hang for blasphemy. Pope Benedict XVI has called for her release.
Dozens of Pakistanis are sentenced to death each year under the blasphemy law, which date back to the 1980s military rule of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. Most cases are thrown out by higher courts and no executions have been carried out, Bhatti said, but the law is being examined to prevent what he said is widespread abuse by religious extremists and opportunists.
Pakistan's Christians, who make up less than 5 percent of Muslim-majority Pakistan's 175 million people, are frequently the targets of accusers invoking the law, Bhatti said.
The minister said accusations have increased in recent years along with the rise of Muslim extremism that has also fueled the Taliban and other insurgent groups seeking to impose Islamic rule based on a strict interpretation of the holy book, the Quran.
"This law is a tool in the hands of the extremists," Bhatti said.
The blasphemy law is unlikely to be repealed because the government's ruling party — largely secular — relies on the support of Islamist groupings. But Bhatti said the government was working to amend the law.
Among the possible reforms, he said, are including punishments for anyone making false accusations and taking the initial investigation out of the hands of local police and instead entrusting them to district officials.
"Anyone with a grudge can accuse anyone of blasphemy," he said.
Bibi's husband, Ashiq Masih, says that is what happened to his wife in June 2009. He said his wife was picking fruit in an orchard in their village of Attian Wali, west of the Punjab provincial capital of Lahore, when she went to fetch some water for the group. When she returned, some of the Muslim women refused to drink from a container touched by a Christian, he said.
Offended, Bibi exchanged heated words with the women, he said. The family thought nothing further of the spat — until five days later when dozens of Muslims from the town's mosque appeared and dragged her away, according to the husband's account.
The angry women claimed that Bibi had insulted Islam's Prophet Muhammad, and the local imam had denounced her from the pulpit.
Bibi's 18-year-old daughter, Sidra, said she followed the crowd to the mosque and witnessed people hitting and insulting her mother.
"They told her to admit the charges of blasphemy, but she wouldn't," Sidra said. "They tried to force her to convert to Islam, but she wouldn't. Then they started beating her."
Bibi was eventually taken to the local police station and charged with blasphemy.
The family was one of only two Christian households in the village, Masih said. Since Bibi's arrest, the other family has moved away. Masih said he also worries it may be unsafe for the family to stay in the village.
Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer told reporters Saturday he is also going to appeal for Bibi's release.
"I am going to take this petition to the president, and the president will forgive her," he said.
That raised hope among her family members, who say they have only seen her five times since her arrest.
"I want my mother to be released in time for Christmas, so we can celebrate together," Sidra said.
Associated Press writer Asif Shahzad in Islamabad contributed to this report.