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, a development that her lawyer said could lead to the girl’s release.
Police late Saturday arrested Khalid Chishti, an imam at a mosque in the same 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 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 Muhammad or the Islamic faith in any way. In some instances a conviction can lead to the death sentence.
Rimsha’s case has garnered 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 instant 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 Monday.
“Now we can say that there is nothing to this case,” Bhatti said Sunday. “The situation is clear, now that this imam has been arrested. Now there’s a big chance that Rimsha will be released on Monday.”
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, particularly Christians and Ahmadis, members of a Muslim sect viewed by most Pakistanis as traitors to Islam because they revere another prophet in addition to Muhammad.
In parts of the country dominated by a conservative Islamist mindset, charges of blasphemy against an individual have sometimes led to mobs taking the law into their own hands. Last 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, one of Pakistan’s most prominent liberal politicians, Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards who later said he committed the murder because Taseer had openly criticized the country’s blasphemy law. Two months after Taseer’s murder, gunmen shot to death Shahbaz Bhatti, the country’s minority affairs minister and a Christian who, like Taseer, had spoken out against 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. Local Muslims had grown increasingly frustrated by the presence of Christians, Rimsha’s supporters say, and had been talking of the need to force them out. Since Rimsha’s arrest, many Christians in her neighborhood have left their homes, fearing reprisals from local Muslims.
Photo: Pakistani policemen escort Islamic cleric Khalid Chishti, center, to court in Islamabad. Credit: Farooq Naeem / Getty Images