South Asia

Pakistan blasphemy law reformers' death threats

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Media captionOrla Guerin: "To people here, Mumtaz Qadri has become a hero"

Pakistan's minorities minister and an MP have told the BBC they will defy death threats they have received for their efforts to reform blasphemy laws.

Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti said he had been threatened with beheading, but he would not be intimidated.

Sherry Rehman, a woman MP who has put forward an amendment in parliament, says she receives death threats every half hour by e-mail and telephone.

The blasphemy law holds a death sentence for anyone who insults Islam.

Critics, including Mr Bhatti, say it has been used to persecute minority faiths in Pakistan.

Climate of fear

A Christian mother-of-five, Asia Bibi, is on death row after being found guilty of blaspheming in her Punjab village in June 2009. She denies the charge.

The issue has been thrust further into the spotlight since the 4 January assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who had backed proposed reforms to the law.

The BBC's Orla Guerin in Islamabad says there is now a climate of fear in the country, with few people daring to even mention the legislation.

Mr Bhatti said: "I was told that if I was to continue the campaign against the blasphemy law, I will be assassinated. I will be beheaded. But forces of violence, forces of extremism cannot harass me, cannot threaten me."

Our correspondent says that in the face of strident popular opposition, Mr Bhatti's own government has said the law will not be changed.

Ms Rehman introduced a private member's bill in parliament to ditch the blasphemy law's death penalty and amend clauses to make miscarriages of justice less likely.

From her home in Karachi, where she is under tight private security, she told the BBC that Pakistan was facing an existential threat from extremism.

"There's a very clear and present danger to the fabric and soul of Pakistan," she said.

"The kind of country we want to live in, if we are not up to strategise and face up to this very existential threat, I think that that will swallow us whole eventually."

'Battle of nerves'

Ms Rehman said she was not fazed by the threats she says she receives.

"You get the feeling that this is a fairly orchestrated campaign to shake me or rattle me," she said.

"It's a battle of nerves to make me run away - I don't mean physically, but from standing up for what I believe in."

There were further street demonstrations on Friday demanding the release of Governor Taseer's self-confessed assassin - his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri.

Hundreds gathered after Friday prayers near Qadri's home in the Punjab city of Rawalpindi demanding the 26-year-old be freed and that blasphemers be beheaded.

Although no-one convicted under the blasphemy law has ever been executed, more than 30 accused have been killed by lynch mobs.

Earlier this week, a Muslim father and son were handed a life prison sentence in Punjab province after they were convicted under the blasphemy law.

They denied tearing down a poster about a celebration of the Prophet Muhammad's birthday outside their grocery shop.

The allegations were said to stem from a sectarian row with a rival Sunni group.

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