Some campaigners are hoping the incident may provide an opportunity for a government long cowed by Islamic radicals to finally to take stand against the country’s notorious blasphemy laws and their misuse.
Pakistan has long drawn criticism for laws that have landed thousands of people in prison, accused or convicted of insulting Mohammed or desecrating the Qur’an.
The twist in the case of Rimsha, a young girl with Down syndrome accused of burning pages of the Qur’an with other papers, appears to bear out what opponents have long been charging – that the laws are frequently abused and also offer a convenient way to settle scores, even those unrelated to religion.
Muslim clerics in Meherabadi, a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad where Rimsha lived, called over mosque loudspeakers last month for the girl to be burned alive, according to the Pakistan Christian Congress (PCC), after accusing her of burning pages of the Qur’an along with other garbage.
Police arrested and charged her, and when they refused to hand her over to fired-up Muslims a mob began to attack Christian homes in Meherabadi, prompting hundreds to flee.
The case appeared to be yet another in a long series of incidents that end either in accused “blasphemers” sentenced to lengthy prison terms or come to harm – even death – at the hands of vigilantes bent on punishing them outside the law, often while awaiting trial.
However, on Saturday police arrested an imam, Khalid Chishti, after witnesses came forward alleging that he had added two or three pages from a Qur’an to a shopping bag containing burned papers – supposedly the evidence of Rimsha’s offense.
One of the witnesses, an assistant to Chishti, told Pakistani television he had informed the police that the imam had tempered with the evidence in a bid to bolster the case against the girl. Mohammad Zubair said Chishti had told him that would help to ensure that the case would lead to Christians’ departure from the area.
Chishti appeared briefly in court and has been remanded in custody for two weeks.
PCC president Nazir Bhatti praised Zubair for his “very daring step.” He urged the government to amend the blasphemy laws, saying they were “being widely misused to settle personal scores in Pakistan against Christians and Ahamadiyya communities.”
Meanwhile a senior Muslim cleric, Mohammad Mehmood Ashrafi, has come out publicly in support of Rimsha, pledging to make sure the girl will be protected after her release from custody, whenever that occurs. At a press conference in Islamabad, Ashrafi also called for a government investigation into the girl’s arrest.
Offering public support for a blasphemy victim has proven highly risky in the past: Last year two senior politicians were assassinated after advocating on behalf of Asia Bibi, the first Pakistani Christian woman to be sentenced to death on blasphemy charges.
Those two men, however were a liberal Muslim governor and a Christian federal cabinet minister. Ashrafi, by contrast, is the chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, a respected religious body. Also, Ashrafi has stopped short of criticizing the blasphemy law itself, maintaining that the problem lies in its implementation.
Rimsha herself remains behind bars. A bail hearing has been scheduled for Friday.
An organization that opposes the blasphemy law and provides legal assistance to Pakistani Christians, the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), urged the government to review not just the Rimsha case but the law itself.
“Blasphemy accusations are extremely serious in Pakistan and the lives of those accused are often at huge risk from radical Islamists, even if they are found to be innocent by the police or courts,” said CLAAS coordinator Nasir Saeed.
“Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has ordered an investigation into Rimsha’s arrest but that is not enough. He must order an urgent review into the misuse of the blasphemy laws so that there will be no more innocent victims like Rimsha. If it is found to be true that Chishti planted evidence against her, then he must be held to account for his actions.”
Saeed also urged Christians to pray for Rimsha’s safety.
In January 2011 Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, was shot dead by a member of his bodyguard, who said he had killed the governor because of his support for Asia Bibi and opposition to the blasphemy laws.
Two months later minorities affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down in Islamabad by unknown assailants, who left pamphlets accusing him of blasphemy because of his opposition to the laws.
After the deaths, tentative steps taken by members of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party towards amending the blasphemy laws ended, and then Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani assured Islamic leaders that the government would not amend the laws.
Pakistan is currently running for a new term on the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, and critics hope to highlight the blasphemy law among other rights violations in the run-up to the election in the fall.
The Obama administration has strongly criticized the laws but, like its predecessor, has repeatedly overruled recommendations by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent statutory body, to designate Pakistan as an egregious religious freedom violator.