In what is being termed a historic verdict by the higher courts in Pakistan, charges against a Christian girl accused of blasphemy were dropped on Tuesday, in response to an appeal filed by her council of lawyers.
“The police have withdrawn the charges and quashed the case against her” confirmed Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, one of her lawyers, saying that the 14-year-old Rimsha Masih was quite relieved and happy about the court’s decision.
Human rights activists in Pakistan say this is a positive development and will set a precedent in the future for the judiciary and law enforcement agencies to act responsibly in cases of blasphemy.
“Since the high court decided to throw out the charges against her, it [will] now become a case … to refer to and will have long-term positive implications. It will also serve as a lesson for the police to thoroughly investigate cases before charging anyone of blasphemy,” says Nadeem Anthony, a Christian activist and member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Mr. Anthony stressed that in past whenever the police have probed cases of blasphemy, accusations have mostly turned out to be false. The Pakistani daily newspaper Dawn reported that some 5,000 cases were registered between 1984 to 2004, and only 964 people were charged with blasphemy.
Rimsha, who was arrested in August and faced life in prison after being accused of burning pages of the Quran by her neighbor, was kept in a high security prison in Rawalpindi, the military city outside Islamabad, for more than two weeks. She was granted bail in September when it emerged that a local cleric had planted false evidence against her.
It appears the cleric wanted to force out the minority Christian families in the area, saying that they were “disturbing his call of prayers” by holding mass at the local church.
However, despite the fact that the case was dropped, she had to be flown out of the prison to an unknown location to ensure her safety and has been in hiding since.
Mr. Chaudhry, Rimsha's lawyer, confirmed that the girl and her family are still under protective custody and it is unlikely that they will return home because of the threats to her life.
Analysts believe this is because radicalization in Pakistani society is quickly multiplying and has resulted in the current wave of militancy. That many groups in Pakistan are armed also poses a serious threat.
“The fact that she is still hiding points to a bigger problem in the society. A few years ago, when it became clear that two brothers accused of blasphemy were going to be acquitted in Faisalabad, they were shot dead outside the premises of the court,” says Marvi Sirmed, a minority rights activist. Ms. Sirmed was herself recently attacked by unknown gunmen in Islamabad, owing to her vocal views about human rights issues in Pakistan.
Sirmed says that the state has failed to protect its citizens in these cases. The root of the problem, she says, is extremism in Pakistan. “Christians are not the only one facing the wrath of blasphemy laws. In fact, the majority of the cases are against Muslims,” she points out. According to an independent study, 51 percent of Pakistanis charged with blasphemy are Muslim, while a human rights report found almost 58 percent of those accused were Muslim women.
“Instead of just changing laws, the state needs to introduce counter-radicalization strategies to tackle this rising extremism. And I don’t see the government taking such steps, which is alarming,” she says.