Pakistani cleric faces possible blasphemy charge

September 3, 2012 - 7:38 AM
Pakistan Christians

Pakistani police officers escort blindfolded Muslim cleric Khalid Chishti to court in Islamabad, Pakistan, Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012. 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. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani police are investigating whether a Muslim cleric who allegedly tried to frame a Christian girl for blasphemy should be charged with insulting Islam himself and potentially face life in prison, a police officer said Monday.

Khalid Chisti was arrested Saturday after a member of his mosque accused him of stashing pages of a Quran in a Christian girl's bag to make it seem like she burned the Islamic holy book. He allegedly planted the evidence to push Christians out of his neighborhood in Islamabad. He has denied the allegations.

The case has generated significant international attention because of reports that the girl is as young as 11 and is mentally handicapped.

Human rights activists have long criticized Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws, saying they are misused to persecute non-Muslims and settle personal vendettas. They have hailed Chisti's arrest as unprecedented and hope it will prevent false blasphemy accusations in the future.

More immediately, they have called for the release of the Christian girl, who has been held in prison for over two weeks.

She will remain in jail until at least Friday after her bail hearing was postponed for a second time Monday, said her lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry. The court adjourned the hearing until then because of a lawyers' strike, he said.

Police registered a blasphemy case against Chisti on Monday for allegedly desecrating the Quran, said police officer Munir Jafferi. If he is charged by a court and convicted, he could face life in prison, said Jafferi.

A separate section of Pakistan's blasphemy laws says insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammed carries the death penalty.

Police are also contemplating leveling additional charges against Chisti, such as fraud, planting evidence and making false allegations, said Jafferi.

Police arrested the girl from her neighborhood in Islamabad over two weeks after an angry mob of several hundred appeared at a local police station, demanding action against her for alleged blasphemy. Police said at the time that they took her into custody partly to protect her from potential harm.

People accused of blasphemy, even those who aren't convicted, often face vigilante justice by outraged Pakistanis. A Pakistani man accused of blasphemy in July was dragged from a police station in the center of the country, beaten to death and his body set on fire.

Christians in the girl's neighborhood left the area en masse as soon as the accusations surfaced, fearing retribution from their Muslim neighbors.

The Associated Press has withheld the girl's name because it does not generally identify juveniles under 18 who are accused of crimes.

The girl's supporters say she is 11 years old and has Down syndrome; a medical board said she was about 14 and that her mental age didn't match her physical age.

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Associated Press writer Zarar Khan contributed to this report.