Pakistan court grants rare bail to woman accused of blasphemy

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan's Supreme Court has granted bail to a woman who is on trial for blasphemy after she spent three years in jail, her lawyer told Agence France-Presse on Friday (Oct 16), a rare decision in a country where such charges are hugely sensitive.

Ms Waliaha Arfat was accused of desecrating a copy of the Koran and jailed in 2012 in the eastern city of Lahore, where her trial in a lower court is still ongoing.

"Her continuous confinement poses a serious threat to her life," her lawyer, renowned human rights activist Asma Jahangir, told Agence France-Presse.

However, her fiance Muhammad Amanullah said her safety was also a major concern once she leaves jail.

Blasphemy is a volatile issue in Pakistan, an Islamic republic of some 200 million, where even unproven allegations frequently stir mob violence and lynchings.

"Some extremists had earlier tried to attack her when she was being taken to the court. Later, the court had to move her trial inside the jail," Mr Amanullah told AFP.

This month, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence for Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of a politician who sought blasphemy law reform, in a historic verdict hailed by moderates as a blow against religious extremism.

The ruling prompted prison officials to put Asia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row for blasphemy, in isolation over fears of attacks by vigilantes.

Officials told Agence France-Presse this week there had been "genuine" threats to the mother-of-five's life.

Bibi, whose high-profile plight has prompted prayers from the Vatican, was convicted in 2010 of committing blasphemy during an argument with a Muslim woman over a bowl of water.

Last year, a British-Pakistani citizen who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy was shot and wounded by a guard at Rawalpindi's Adiala jail. And a Christian labourer and his wife were burned alive last November after being accused of throwing pages of the Koran in the garbage.

Critics including European governments say Pakistan's blasphemy laws are often misused to settle personal scores.

Ms Arfat's trial lawyer Saiful Malook said she will be released soon.

She is suffering from mood disorders and needs psychotherapy, Ms Jahangir said, adding that Pakistan's penal code says no woman can be kept behind bars in the country for more than six months without a conviction.

In her petition, Ms Jahangir pleaded her client's innocence and said that as a Muslim, she could not even conceive of committing such a crime.

A trial judge first refused Ms Arfat bail in 2012 because of the "serious nature" of the charge.

She appealed twice, with both pleas rejected, and the provincial High Court also dismissed a petition on August 28 this year.

Last week, a local court in the district of Kasur granted bail to another blasphemy accused, Pervaiz Masih, who had been arrested in September.