Pakistan's Ambassador to U.S. Sherry Rehman accused of blasphemy

In this March 31, 2008 file photo, Pakistan's former Information Minister Sherry Rehman is seen in her office in Islamabad, Pakistan.
AP

ISLAMABAD One of Pakistan's top-ranking diplomats, Ambassador to the U.S. Sherry Rehman, is the latest person to be accused of blasphemy in her home country under harsh laws that include a possible death sentence for anyone convicted of defaming the Islamic prophet.

A senior government official in Lahore, provincial capital of Punjab province, confirmed to CBS News that a case of blasphemy had been registered with the police in the city of Multan against Rehman, a former journalist who was assigned to the Washington post in 2011.

The case promises to unleash another clash between conservative Muslims who vehemently back the country's Islamic laws, and those who dare to challenge them as outdated and in need of reform.

The official, who agreed to speak to CBS News on the condition of anonymity as he was not permitted to discuss the details of the case publically, said the case was brought "in response to a private complaint from a businessman."

That businessman, 31-year-old Faheem Gill, accuses Rehman of making blasphemous remarks during a 2010 discussion on a Pakistani television channel. She has openly called for the blasphemy laws to be reformed, and has already faced death threats from Islamic hardliners for doing so.

According to human rights activists, a number of innocent Pakistanis, including Muslims and religious minorities, have been arrested following accusations that they either uttered derogatory words against the prophet Muhammad, or desecrated the Quran, the Islamic holy book. Both actions are considered blasphemous under current Pakistani law.

Two Pakistani politicians -- Salman Taseer, the former governor of the massive Punjab province, and Shehbaz Bhatti, a Christian cabinet minister -- have been assassinated following their defense of people accused of blasphemy.

Western diplomats say the case against Ambassador Rehman may not create any immediate danger to her, as she is outside of Pakistan, but it comes as a powerful reminder of a contentious issue that has divided the predominantly Muslim country.

The case also puts President Asif Ali Zardari's already-embattled government in an awkward position, as it tries to balance its own liberal leanings with continued pressure from conservative Islamic parties and regional populations that want the Islamic laws enforced strictly. It is added pressure that the governing Pakistan People's Party -- to which Zardari and Rehman both belong -- does not need with parliamentary elections expected in May.

"This case is a powerful reminder of the internal divisions in Pakistan that have already caused much harm to this country," a Western diplomat told CBS News on Thursday. "Given how divided Pakistan remains, it's practically impossible for President Zardari's government to either defend or oppose this case."

Legal experts say there are ambiguities surrounding the definition of blasphemy in the current laws, and judges have been suspected of even refusing to hear evidence supporting defendants in blasphemy cases, for fear that they could be targeted by religious zealots.

The case of teenage Christian girl brought widespread attention to the blasphemy controversy raging inside Pakistan to the outside world last year. She was eventually cleared by a court after it was discovered that she likely was framed by the owner of her family's rented home, working in tandem with an Islamic cleric hoping to force her Christian family out of the neighborhood.