Pakistani girl gets bail on blasphemy charge

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 7, 2012 

— A Pakistani court ordered the release on bail Friday of a mentally disabled Christian girl who’d been jailed on blasphemy charges, a decision that brought some sense of justice here but didn’t end the threat the girl faces for allegedly burning pages of the Quran.

Pakistan’s interior minister, Rehman Malik, told Parliament shortly after the court’s order that the girl, Rimsha Masih, would be taken into protective custody “in case of a violent reaction,” a reference to the dozens of people charged with blasphemy who’ve been killed over the years before conviction or after the court found them not guilty.

Rimsha, whose family says she’s 11, is likely to be released Saturday from the adult maximum-security prison where she’s been held for three weeks in solitary confinement. She still faces a full trial on the blasphemy allegations, though her lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, said he was hopeful that the Islamabad High Court would dismiss the charges.

“This is no direct evidence against Rimsha,” he said. “This is a case for quashment.”

Last weekend, one of her accusers, Khalid Jadoon, the prayer leader of the local mosque, was himself arrested and charged with blasphemy, accused of fabricating the burned Quran pages that Rimsha was supposed to have desecrated.

An accusation of blasphemy is a particularly inflammatory charge in Pakistan, and bail for a person accused of blasphemy is unheard of. Last year, extremists gunned down two senior members of the government in separate attacks for merely criticizing the way the law is enforced, and Rimsha’s parents have been in hiding since she was arrested Aug. 16 after Jadoon and a neighbor accused her of having burned pages of the Quran and another religious text in a plastic bag she was carrying.

But the district court judge hearing the case granted bail after accepting a medical ruling that the girl was a minor and apparently has mental disabilities. Malik, the interior minister, later told Parliament that Rimsha, who has Down syndrome, has a mental age of 7.

A lawyer for Rimsha’s accuser, Rao Abdur Raheem, a well-known fundamentalist advocate, objected to bail, and the court, which had twice postponed a decision on the matter, set a hefty one: 1 million rupees, about $10,500, far more than her family, which lives in a one-room shack, could afford. The All Pakistan Minorities Association, an independent advocacy group, posted the bail.

Malik, who this week ordered a further investigation into the case, said the evidence against Rimsha was weak. “The material in the bag was burnt wood, not burnt papers,” he said. But Raheem said that if she were acquitted it would be because “there are so many hurdles being created by the government’s investigators in favor of Rimsha.”

“But everyone knows that she is guilty,” he said.

Rimsha’s case is the first in which the government and the public appear to support someone who’s accused of breaking the blasphemy laws. Still, many here think that she and her family will be forced to flee abroad eventually, even if she’s acquitted of the charge.

Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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