Need for restraint

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The call by a Peshawar cleric for executing Aasia Bibi, who was sentenced to death by the trial court for blasphemy, comes at a time when the matter is pending before the Lahore High Court and the government has been restrained from granting her swift pardon. The cleric also announced a Rs 500,000-bounty for anyone who killed the blasphemer.

Aasias case raised an international outcry, including pleas for mercy from Christian leaders and human rights organisations around the world. They were critical of the government for dithering on the issue of the pardon after indicating that the blasphemy accused would be absolved. They fear that the court intervention and street demonstrations by religious leaders, who proclaimed that the blasphemy conviction was so grave that it must be punished by death, could make it difficult for President Zardari to keep his promise. But what they are not trying to understand is that presidential pardon can be awarded only after decision by the countrys highest court of appeal. And this is the law. There have been instances in the past where the apex court had commuted death penalty to life imprisonment. The government, under pressure from religious conservatives, may find it difficult to abolish or change the blasphemy law but it can take measures to prevent the hardliners from provoking public sentiments. The judiciary can play a role in this regard. Recently, the Bangladesh SC announced an important verdict ending any discrimination against, or prosecution of persons practicing a particular religion while directing the government to take stern action against those creating communal disharmony.

The clerics issuing calls for the execution of Aasia Bibi or announcing rewards for anyone who kills the blasphemy accused need to exercise restraint and allow the law to take its course. They should have faith in the judicial independence and remain hopeful that the matter would be dealt with in accordance with the Constitution and laws of the land.