Sunday, June 24, 2018

Pakistani Christian girl's accuser is arrested

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Muslim cleric who had accused a young Christian girl of desecrating the Koran has been arrested on suspicion of fabricating the case against her. The girl's lawyer said she could be released.

Police late Saturday arrested Khalid Chishti, an imam at a mosque in the Islamabad neighborhood where the girl lived, and charged him with planting pages from the Koran into a bag of ashes and trash that the girl was taking to a garbage bin. Chishti was among the group of Muslims who claimed that the girl, Rimsha Masih, had violated the country's controversial blasphemy law.

In Pakistan, it is a crime to desecrate the Koran or insult the prophet Mohammed or the Islamic faith in any way. In some instances, a conviction can lead to the death sentence.

Rimsha's case has attracted international attention, in part because of her age. Authorities initially said she was 11 years old, but a recent medical report put her age at 14. That still makes her a juvenile, and raises questions about why she has been held at an adult jail since her arrest Aug. 16.

With Chishti's arrest on charges of fabricating a case against the girl, Rimsha's lawyers will push for her immediate release and acquittal, said Akmal Waheed Bhatti, a lawyer and member of Rimsha's defense team. Her case comes up again at an Islamabad court today.

Pakistan's application of its blasphemy law remains one of the country's most inflammatory and divisive issues. It is often used as a way to settle scores against adversaries or persecute minorities, including Christians.

In parts of the country dominated by a conservative Islamist mind-set, charges of blasphemy against individuals have sometimes led to mobs taking the law into their own hands. In July in the southern Punjab city of Bahawalpur, an angry mob dragged a mentally unstable man accused of blasphemy from a police station, doused him with gasoline and burned him alive.

In January 2011, a prominent liberal politician, Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards who later said Taseer had openly criticized the country's blasphemy law.

Rimsha's lawyers believe friction between Christians and Muslims living in the girl's impoverished Islamabad neighborhood may have led to the blasphemy charges.

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