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(New York) - A Pakistani court's order to bar President Asif Ali Zardari from pardoning a woman sentenced to death for blasphemy contravenes Pakistan's constitution and should be withdrawn immediately, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Lahore High Court in Punjab province issued an order on November 29, 2010, barring Zardari from exercising his constitutional authority to pardon Aasia Bibi, an illiterate farmhand who had been convicted by the Sheikhupura District Court of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Zardari had ordered a review of the case in mid-November, after domestic and international outrage over the sentence. A ministerial inquiry concluded on November 25 that the district court verdict was legally unsound.

"The Lahore high court has overstepped its constitutional authority by preventing President Zardari from pardoning Aasia Bibi, who was unjustly convicted under a discriminatory law," said Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The court has blocked Zardari from promptly correcting a cruel wrong and instead has disgraced Pakistan's judiciary."

Aasia Bibi was charged under the blasphemy law after a June 2009 altercation with fellow farm workers who refused to drink water she had touched, contending it was "unclean" because she was Christian. On November 8, the Sheikhupura District Court found her guilty, ruling that there were "no mitigating circumstances."

She is the first woman in Pakistan's history to be sentenced to capital punishment for blasphemy, though others have been charged and given lesser sentences.

Pakistan's constitution is unequivocal in providing the president with the power to pardon, Human Rights Watch said. Article 45 of the constitution states that, "The president shall have power to grant pardon, reprieve, and respite, and to remit, suspend or commute any sentence passed by any court, tribunal or other authority."

Prior to the action of the Lahore High Court, senior Pakistani government officials had indicated to Human Rights Watch and to the media that Zardari was likely to use his constitutional prerogative to pardon and free Aasia Bibi.

The court stated in its interim order that any pardon would be "premature" as Aasia Bibi's appeal of her conviction was pending before the court. Senior Pakistani lawyers, including Asma Jahangir, a prominent human rights advocate and president of the prestigious Supreme Court Bar Association, the country's most influential forum for lawyers, have publicly criticized the Lahore High Court order.

Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for repeal of the blasphemy law and other discriminatory provisions in Pakistan's penal code. International and Pakistani human rights organizations have long called for the repeal of the blasphemy law, as section 295-C of the penal code is known, which makes the death penalty mandatory for blasphemy. The law has come under renewed scrutiny in recent weeks as a consequence of the Aasia Bibi case. In 2009, authorities charged scores of people under the law. Many of them remain in prison.

"Not only do those charged under the blasphemy law suffer persecution, it is evident the ill effects of discriminatory laws are compounded by unsympathetic courts," Hasan said.

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