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Pak blasphemy law reform advocate Sherry Rehman says being scared "no longer works"

March 29, 2011 - Karachi

Liberal Pakistan parliamentarian Sherry Rehman, who is facing death threats for proposing a bill to reform the nation's draconian blasphemy laws, has said that being scared "no longer works".

Of the three brave Pakistani politicians who stood up for Aasia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was sentenced to death last November for allegedly committing blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad, just one is still alive- Rehman.

But she is no stranger to threats, as when former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's convoy was bombed in Karachi on her return from exile in 2007, Rehman was in the car, and her back still bears burn scars. When Bhutto was killed in a gun and bomb attack weeks later, Rehman escorted her body to the hospital.

"Being scared no longer works. The physical attack happens, and you keep working the next day," The Washington Post quoted Rehman, as saying.

At large rallies, clerics have named Rehman an apostate for seeking reforms to the controversial blasphemy laws, but if extremists have sent Rehman a message to keep quiet, her secular Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has appeared to do the same.

After a court sentenced Pakistani Christian woman Aasia Bibi to death on blasphemy charges last November, President Asif Ali Zardari formed a committee to review the laws and indicated that he might pardon the woman. Rehman, a long-time sponsor of bills to strengthen the rights of women and minorities, authored legislation to amend the blasphemy statutes.

But following huge outcry from religious groups, the ruling party backed down, and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said in February that Rehman had withdrawn her bill, which was news to her.

"These are wars you have to fight all the time," Rehman said, shaking her head.

Yet, although she does not disavow her position on the blasphemy laws, the report said, she is now cautious when discussing the topic, and declines to criticise the PPP.

Following the assassinations of Taseer and Bhatti, 50-year-old Rehman is now the country's only vocal advocate for amending the blasphemy laws- a cause she now backs mostly from home, and more quietly, said the report.

While armed guards and police stand watch outside, inside, Rehman receives friends and colleagues, fending off pleas that she should flee the country lest she be assassinated, the report added.

"I don't want to leave," she said in a recent interview. "I want to be able to stay here as long as possible, and if it means I'm not going to go to the shops or go to the Sunday bazaar, okay."

Rehman says that the main task now should be righting the faltering economy, which fuels extremism in the financial crisis-hit country.

"Tolerance is the big issue. But the government will have to deal with how people are facing the next day and getting the next meal," she maintained.


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