By DECLAN WALSH
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The fate of a Pakistani Christian girl at the center of a contentious blasphemy case hung in the balance on Tuesday, as lawyers applied for her release from jail and an influential Muslim cleric offered his support.
The Pakistani authorities have held the girl, Rimsha Masih, in a high-security jail since Aug. 16, when hundreds of Muslim protesters, angered over claims that she had burned pages from an Islamic holy book, surrounded a police station here in Islamabad to demand that she face prosecution.
Fearing violence, the police filed blasphemy charges against Ms. Masih. Relatives and human rights workers said she was 11 years old and had Down syndrome, and should therefore be exempt from the blasphemy laws. The girl, who comes from an impoverished family of Christian sweepers, was said to have been seen holding a burned copy of the Noorani Qaida, a religious textbook used to teach the Koran to children.
After a brief court hearing Tuesday morning, Ms. Masih’s lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, said a medical board had established that she was 14 years old and had a degree of mental disability. “The report establishes that her mental condition does not match her age and physical condition,” he said.
That medical finding could help break the deadlock in a case that has outraged human rights groups, embarrassed Pakistan’s government and renewed the spotlight on laws that experts say are abused by the powerful to prey on the weak and religious minorities.
Mr. Chaudhry said he hoped Ms. Masih would be granted bail at the next scheduled hearing, on Thursday, while senior government officials indicated they were pressing to have the charges dropped entirely.
For now, worries for Ms. Masih’s well-being focus on her incarceration at Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi, where Mr. Chaudhry told reporters he found her “weeping and crying” during a visit last Saturday. Amnesty International has said it was “extremely concerned” for Ms. Masih’s safety, noting that, in the past, accused blasphemers in Pakistan had been killed by vigilantes before their cases even reached trial.
Her plight has also prompted concern among conservative Muslim clerics who, alarmed by a spate of recent blasphemy-inspired mob attacks, have united with Christian leaders on the issue.
The police should investigate Ms. Masih’s case “immediately and without fear,” said Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, an umbrella group of Muslim clerics, including some from fundamentalist groups. If investigators find Ms. Masih is innocent, those who instigated false charges against her should be prosecuted, he added.
“In Pakistan we have one law for both Muslims and Christians; the government should apply it,” he said.
Human rights campaigners said that Ms. Masih’s parents were in the protective custody of the minister for national harmony, Paul Bhatti, whose brother Shahbaz Bhatti, the former minorities minister, was gunned down outside his Islamabad home last year.
The family’s Christian neighbors fled once the scandal erupted, fearing for their lives. Since the weekend at least 50 families have returned home, said Joseph Francis of the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, which is working to help accused blasphemers in more than 100 cases. But, Mr. Francis added, local Muslim shopkeepers are refusing to sell food to Christian families, leaving them dependent on donations from Christian charities.
Human rights campaigners are using Ms. Masih’s case to renew calls for changes to the blasphemy laws, which date from the British colonial era and are frequently abused by powerful Muslim clerics to persecute religious minorities or to pursue grudges against fellow Muslims.
But the issue is considered politically toxic, particularly since the assassination of the governor of Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, at the hands of his own bodyguard in January 2011. The bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, said he killed Mr. Taseer because he supported changes to the blasphemy reforms laws, and because he had supported Asia Bibi, the first woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. Ms. Bibi remains in jail.
If, as the government hopes, Ms. Masih is released later this week, there is little chance she can return to her home, Mr. Francis said.
“It is not possible for her to stay in the same village” because of security concerns, he said, noting that his organization had helped resettle accused blasphemers in the United States, Canada, Germany and across Pakistan.
Plans are already being made to relocate Ms. Masih and her family, he added.
Salman Masood contributed reporting.
Courtesy: The New York Times
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