Hopes for end to blasphemy case after girl released from Pakistani jail
A YOUNG Christian girl accused of burning pages of Islam’s holy book was freed yesterday from a Pakistani jail where she had been held for three weeks.
The release, a day after a judge granted her bail, is another step closer to ending an episode that has focused an uncomfortable spotlight on Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, which can result in life in prison, or even death, for defendants. Many critics say the laws are misused to wage vendettas or target Pakistan’s vulnerable minorities such as Christians.
The girl was taken from the prison in an armoured vehicle and whisked to a waiting helicopter while covered with a sheet to protect her identity.
A Muslim cleric from her neighbourhood was arrested last week for allegedly planting evidence to incriminate the 14-year-old girl, in an apparent U-turn in a case that has drawn strong international condemnation. Even in Pakistan where there is significant support for punishing people accused of desecrating the Koran or insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammed, the girl’s age and questions about her mental state have earned her a degree of public sympathy.
Her lawyers say they will now push to have the case against her thrown out entirely. “Her parents were with her when she was freed from the jail, and she has been taken to a safer place,” said a member of her legal team, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry.
The girl’s release came a day after a judge in Islamabad granted bail to the girl, a move hailed by human right activists and representatives of Pakistan’s minority Christian community. Bail is rarely granted in blasphemy cases, and the decision signals a degree of sympathy that could result in all the charges being dropped.
The girl was arrested on 16 August shortly after hundreds of angry Muslims surrounded her house, and accused her of burning pages from the Koran, an act punishable by life in prison. Her lawyer has denied the allegation.
However, police then arrested a cleric after a follower from his mosque accused him of stashing pages of a Koran in the girl’s bag to make it seem as if she had burned them. He allegedly planted the evidence to push Christians out of the neighbourhood and is now being investigated for blasphemy himself. He has denied the allegation.
In his ruling granting bail, the judge wrote that the arrest of the cleric cast serious doubt on the prosecution’s case. He also said she was a minor and had “mental challenges”.
The tight security present during her release is a sign that authorities are taking her safety seriously in light of previous attacks on people accused of blasphemy. Two prominent politicians were gunned down last year for suggesting the blasphemy laws should be amended to prevent misuse.
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