Pakistani president wades into 'Down's Syndrome' blasphemy case

President Zardari's intervention may signal that moderate coalition parties in the government will take up the issue of reforming the blasphemy law again.

B.K. Bangash/AP
Local women walk past the locked house of a Christian girl in a suburb of Islamabad, Pakistan on Monday, Aug. 20, 2012. Pakistani authorities arrested an 11-year-old Christian girl and are investigating whether she violated the country's strict blasphemy laws after furious neighbors surrounded her house and demanded police take action, a police officer said Monday.

The fate of an 11-year-old Christian girl in Pakistan who was jailed last week after being accused of burning religious texts hangs on a pending medical report from authorities confirming that she is mentally disabled. 

Under Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, the desecration of Islamic scriptures is punishable by death. Local media have reported the girl has Down's Syndrome, which could give authorities a means of exonerating her.

Pakistan has struggled to handle blasphemy cases in recent years. With the country in the global spotlight, such cases bring strong condemnations not just from elites and minorities here but from an international community worried about Pakistan's heated religious climate. Pakistani leaders also face pressure from local communities prepared to violently punish any accused blasphemers.  

In this case, Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari has stepped in early, saying he is taking "notice" of the issue and directed officials to investigate. Some analysts here see that as a silver lining in the case. 

“The case … demonstrates the growing bigotry in the society where people cannot even spare a mentally challenged child,” says Raza Rumi, a noted columnist, adding that efforts to even conduct a debate on the colonial-era blasphemy law have resulted in murders and threats to progressive Pakistani Muslims. “However the intervention by the president is a healthy sign indicating that the moderate coalition parties in the government may take up the issue of reforming the blasphemy law again,” he adds. 

Locals from the slum outside Islamabad where the girl lived say the case has sparked tensions between Christians and Muslims, forcing the Christian minority to flee.

“We are living with our relatives in Rawalpindi till the situation calms down in our area,” says Shabnam, who works as a maid for wealthy families in Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan. “Our landlord, who is a Muslim, told us to leave the house and go away for some days because he says it is dangerous for us to stay there after the arrest of the girl accused for blasphemy.”

Shabnam says she does not know when her family of eight will return home. She says the Muslims in her area also tried to attack some of the houses where Christians are living but police intervention stopped it from happening, a claim Paul Bhatti, adviser to the prime minister for National Harmony, verifies.

The girl was arrested Aug. 16 after hundreds of neighbors gathered outside her house and demanded that police take action. The crowd had heard rumors she had allegedly burned a Qaida, a learning guide to the Quran which includes excerpts of the Islamic scriptures. 

“On Friday I got reports that in a village on the outskirts of Islamabad, some 1,000 men had gathered after the Friday prayers sermons where the local cleric had asked for the massacre of Christians in the neighborhood over blasphemy by a Christian girl. But due to timely action by the police, we were able to calm the crowd,” Dr. Bhatti says.

Safer in jail for now

The girl is scheduled to appear in court on Aug. 25, according to the police officials investigating the case. 

According to Bhatti, the charges against the girl would likely be dropped once the medical report is completed, but in an effort to protect the girl, her family, and other Christians in the area from vigilantes, a case had to be registered against her. “If the girl was free and not in jail, it would have been impossible to protect her,” he says.

Meanwhile, police have filed a case against one of her accusers. 

“We have also filed a case against the local cleric accusing her because he damaged police property and wanted us to hand over the girl to her. But we did not arrest him yet because it is such a religiously sensitive issue that if we do anything against the cleric it could land us in trouble,” says Zabiullah, a police officer from the area who goes by only one name.

This situation on the ground remains fragile.

Peter Jacob, a human rights activist, who heads the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a Christian human rights organization, says around 250 to 300 families have fled the area where the girl lives. “Things have calmed down in the area now they do not want to return, because who can guarantee that it will not happen again?” says Mr. Jacob.

Chance for change?

That the president has weighed in on the situation could be a key step forward for the country says Jacob: “This can be a chance for the government to revisit the blasphemy law and make recommendations to the parliament about it."

“With this case coming to light, it is imperative now that the political parties, civil society, and media houses shun the tradition of playing politics in the name of religion; for everyone is vulnerable to the abuse of blasphemy laws,” says Mr. Rumi.

Attempts to alter the blasphemy laws have been unsuccessful in the past, however.

Pakistan's ambassador to the United States Sherry Rehman submitted a bill to the National Assembly in 2010 seeking an end to the death penalty envisaged in the blasphemy laws. But after pressure from religious parties and the assassinations last year of top officials Salman Taaseer and Shahbaz Bhatti – both of whom publicly supported changing the law – the government announced that it would not change the law.

The current government is not strong enough to make any changes says Paul Bhatti, who is Shahbaz’s brother. “Even if the law changes, who will change the mindset of the people? It is very important that we first create interfaith harmony in Pakistan, without which such discrimination against non-Muslims will continue,” he says.

NCJP estimates that each year more than 100 people are accused of blasphemy in Pakistan, a figure that is rising; however, the group says most of them are not genuine and occur due to personal enmity or discrimination against religious minorities.

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