As Pakistani Christian girl is granted bail, critics call for blasphemy law reform

A Pakistani judge granted bail today to a young, mentally challenged Christian girl accused of burning pages of the Islamic holy book.

B.K. Bangash/AP
Paul Bhatti (c.), an advisor to the prime minister of Pakistan on minorities affairs, flanked by lawyers of a Pakistani girl accused of blasphemy, addresses a news conference in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, Sept. 7.

A young Christian girl, believed to have mental disabilities, accused of desecrating the Quran, has been granted bail after being kept behind bars for more than three weeks.

In Pakistan, where committing blasphemy can carry a death sentence, the case highlights how the law is abused to persecute members of minority communities in the Muslim majority country.

“The vital question here is whether or not the debate to reform and/or repeal the blasphemy law will ensue now,” says Raza Rumi, a noted columnist, who heads a think tank in Islamabad.  “The international and local outcry and robust support to the girl provided by sections of some Islamists is perhaps indicative of the way forward."

The bail hearing lasted for more than three hours on Friday morning in a crowded courtroom, with fiery arguments from both sides. The lawyer of the cleric bringing the complaint against the girl accused the police and the state of conducting investigations with malicious intentions. 

After some deliberation, the court set her bail at one million rupees (about $10,500), which one of the lawyers representing her says will be paid by a humanitarian organization working for minority rights in Pakistan.

The girl was arrested last month in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Islamabad, where her family lives. The case turned in her favor, when a local cleric, one of the witnesses against the girl, was arrested after the deputy cleric from the same mosque gave a statement to police saying he saw the cleric planting the burned pages of a Quran in the bag she was allegedly carrying.

Investigations by the Monitor correspondent also showed that the girl's locality faced rising tensions the past few months and Muslims in the area wanted to evict local Christians. “They used to disturb us by playing music during our prayer times,” one local claimed during a visit last week.

Critics of the blasphemy law say that the state should use this opportunity to investigate abuse of the law.

“The police and lower courts are always under pressure from religious extremists when handling blasphemy cases, fearing attacks from the fanatics if no action is taken against an accused,” says Nadeem Anthony, a lawyer who specializes in blasphemy cases.

Mr. Anthony says local police need to follow the law and “stop the cases from being registered to begin with, by penalizing the police for coming under pressure of extremists. According to law, a case cannot be registered until a high-level police officer has conducted the investigation, but that procedure is never followed,” he adds.

It’s too common, right now, he says, that police arrest first and ask questions later – a dangerous recipe for the accused.

According to Anthony, because blasphemy is such a sensitive issue, the threat of violence against the accused becomes permanent once someone is accused, even if wrongly.

“They either go into hiding or have left the country seeking asylum abroad. They cannot go back to their homes. It’s just not possible because the threat always remains,” he says, adding that the young girl and her family will likely have to go “under the radar” for the foreseeable future.

“The girl has been taken into protective custody of the police because of fear of a violent reaction from the public,” Rehman Malik, the interior minister, said in a televised speech after the hearing.

“Granting bail to the minor Christian girl after weeks of unjust incarceration comes as a relief to the majority of enlightened Pakistanis who have been alerting the state and society against the flagrant misuse of blasphemy law,” says Rumi, the columnist.

But tackling abuse of the law and protecting the accused in Pakistan still have a long way to go. 

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