Imam accused in latest twist to Koran burning case

POLICE in Pakistan have arrested a Muslim cleric who accused a Christian girl of blasphemy on suspicion that he doctored evidence in the latest twist to a case that has attracted international condemnation.

Rimsha Masih’s cause has been taken up by democracy and Christian activists around the world after she was accused of burning pages of Koranic verse.

Her supporters say she has Down’s syndrome, is aged just 11 and is the victim of a long running dispute with Muslims in the neighbourhood of Mehrabad, just outside Islamabad.

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They now hope she will be freed today after witnesses emerged to say they had seen the imam at the centre of the dispute adding pages from a Koran to a bag of ashes carried by Rimsha.

Xavier William, of the Christian charity Life for All, said they had not dared come forward earlier for fear of reprisals and their testimony proved that Rimsha had been framed.

“This shows it was a conspiracy against Christians in the locality,” he said.

The case has exposed deep-seated tensions between Muslims and religious minorities in Pakistan and renewed calls for reform of the country’s strict blasphemy laws.

Rimsha was arrested more than two weeks ago and has been detained at Adiala high-security prison in solitary confinement for her own protection. Her family is in hiding.

The arrest also triggered an exodus of Christian families from Mehrabad, fearful of revenge attacks. They said they were already under intense pressure from Muslims who were angry at the loud noise of hymns echoing from their church.

And it presented authorities with a major headache: how to drop charges against a girl believed to have learning disabilities without risking further enflaming hardline Islamist leaders, and sparking revenge attacks. The new evidence may offer a way out.

Yesterday, Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishtie, imam of a nearby mosque appeared in court to be charged with desecrating a Koran by adding pages of the holy text to charred rubbish collected from Rimsha.

He was arrested a day earlier after worshippers at his mosque came forward to say they saw him tampering with evidence.

“He was arrested after his deputy Maulvi Zubair and two others told a magistrate he added pages from the Koran to the burnt pages brought to him by a witness,” said Munir Hussain Jaffri, a police investigator.

Inevitably the revelation has brought accusations of a political stitch-up.

Rao Abdur Raheem, the lawyer for Rimsha’s accuser, her neighbour Hammad Malik, said the development was designed to sabotage his case.

“They are pressurising the complainants and witnesses to facilitate the bail of Rimsha,” he told the court.

A medical report last week concluded that she was 14, with a lower mental age, and that she should therefore be treated as a minor, making her eligible for bail.