Christian girl acquitted of blasphemy charge

ISLAMABAD, Nov 20: A Christian girl accused of blasphemy over the burning of the Muslim holy book was today acquitted by a Pakistani court, her lawyer said. [caption id="attachment_5804" align="alignleft" width="217" caption="Cleric Hafiz Mohammad Khalid accused the girl of burning the Koran."][/caption] Rimsha Masih, 11, was arrested in Islamabad in August and faced the death penalty after Muslim cleric neighbour Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti accused her of desecrating a copy of the Koran. The cleric was later accused of ‘framing’ Masih by fabricating evidence in a case that went to the highest levels of the Pakistani government and sparked international outrage at the country’s strict blasphemy laws. Attorney Abdul Hameed said a court in Islamabad dismissed all the charges against Masih on Tuesday, concluding they were based on heresy and incriminated material that was planted in the girl’s possession. ‘I am happy that the poor girl’s ordeal is now over,’ Hameed told The Associated Press. Masih was released on bail in September but had to be taken by helicopter to an undisclosed location in a dramatic operation. There were fears Masih and other Christians in her neighbourhood could be in danger if she remained there. In Pakistan, the mere allegation of causing offence to Islam can mean death, with some killed even if they are found innocent by the courts. However, this was a rare occasion when senior Islamic clerics intervened to oppose the charges levelled at her. Sympathy for the girl has been heightened by unsubstantiated claims that she is mentally impaired and has Down’s Syndrome. She was accused of carrying charred pages from the Koran near her house in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Islamabad. In an extraordinary development, however, three officers from the local mosque accused Chishti of planting the pages among the charred refuse Masih had been carrying to strengthen the case against her. Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, another of the girl’s lawyers, said the testimony of a local police officer, who told a court there was no evidence against her, had proved crucial in securing her acquittal. The officer had appeared to ‘arrest’ Masih in mid-August to protect her from protests by the majority Muslim community in the Mehrabad district. Chaudhry went on to demand changes to Pakistan’s religious laws, which were strengthened during the hardline conservative rule of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. ‘It is very difficult to change these laws in Pakistan,’ he said. ‘But this judgement will set a precedent so that other cases can be properly investigated and pursued.’ Concerns remains over the safety of Masih, who is unlikely to return to Mehrabad because of continuing support among many for Chishti. ‘While I’m thrilled to hear the charges have been quashed, my foremost concern at the moment is her safety,’ said Tahira Abdullah, a rights activist in Islamabad. ‘Others have been acquitted before but they have not lived to tell the tale.’ Many Christians moved out of the area during protests in the weeks after her arrest.–mailonline]]>

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