Blasphemy case: Christian girl's accuser arrested for planting evidence

Pakistani police have arrested Muslim cleric Khalid Chishti after his deputy came forward to accuse Mr. Chishti of adding burnt pages of the Quran to an evidence submission.

Anjum Naveed/AP
Pakistani Muslim girls talk about press gathered outside a mosque, unseen, where police arrested a Muslim cleric Khalid Chishti, in a suburb of Islamabad, Pakistan, Sunday. In the latest twist in a religiously charged case that has focused attention on the country's harsh blasphemy laws, Pakistani police arrested Chishti who they say planted evidence in the case of a Christian girl accused of blasphemy.

A Christian girl accused of blasphemy in Pakistan may have been framed by a Muslim cleric. Pakistani police arrested the cleric Saturday night, accusing him of tampering with evidence that purported to show she had desecrated the Quran. 

The cleric, Khalid Chishti, was arrested after the deputy cleric of the same mosque came forward with allegations that he saw Mr. Chishti adding burnt pages of Quran to the evidence that was given to the police.

According to the police, Hafiz Mohammad Zubair, the deputy cleric, says he tried to stop Chishti from tampering with the evidence but the cleric insisted that this is the best way to get rid of the Christians in the area.

This latest twist in a case that had already drawn international outcry will add pressure on Pakistani authorities to absolve the girl, still in prison since last month and facing a possible life sentence. The revelations will also bolster campaigners who have tried to amend or repeal the law for years by arguing that many cases are trumped up to persecute minorities or settle local scores.

“It is a sigh of relief because now everyone knows there was victimization of the minor girl,” says Peter Jacob, head of Christian activist group, who provide legal support to minorities in Pakistan.

“This abuse has been ongoing for two and a half decades and with this case coming to light, we can actually see that there are lacunas in the blasphemy law that need to be removed so such abuse does not take place,” says Mr. Jacob, adding that the government should use this opportunity to amend the law. “If the law cannot be repealed, the state can at least create safeguards, using this case as an example,” Jacob says.

In a televised interview from a few days before, Khalid Chishti had accepted that he spoke about evicting the Christians from his locality, in one of his Friday sermons.

Chaudry Asghar, a local shopkeeper told the Monitor that local elders and religious clerics had formed a committee a few months back to expel the Christians from the area because they were causing disturbance during Muslim prayers.

“They would play loud music during our call to prayer and the cleric and other elders of the area had warned them several times to stop, but they did not listen to us,” Mr. Asghar says.

Some observers worry that finger pointing between the Muslim and Christian communities may only further politicize the case unless the government acts quickly and carefully. 

Hina Jilani, a human rights lawyer, says she is fearful that religious groups might come out in support of the cleric, and the government needs to stop that from happening by focusing on the legal and technical merits of the case too.

“The medical report says she is a minor and mentally incapable. She should not have been arrested to begin with,” Ms. Jilani says, adding that although the reports of tensions already existing between the Muslims and the Christians in the area are true, the priority of the government should focus on freeing the minor girl.

Asserting that the minor girl’s case should not be politicized, Ms. Jilani however does feel there is a pattern of persecution of minorities all over the country and historically it was linked with local grievances like property disputes and personal enmity.

But increasingly it is becoming a matter of “purifying” the society, she says. “Over the years, persecution of Christians is increasing in Pakistan. There are less than 2 percent left, and yet religious extremists still feel Islam is under a threat from them?” she says, adding that there are laws dealing with people who incite communal violence but the application of that law is weak.

“The government needs to stop being scared of religious lobbies and exercise its authority to stop such elements that provoke hatred amongst different communities in Pakistan,” she added.

The next hearing of the case will take place on Monday, while the cleric, who was presented in court today, has been handed to police for fourteen days to investigate if he did tamper with the evidence. If proven guilty, legal experts say he can be charged under the same blasphemy law under which the minor girl was accused.

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