ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A judge on Friday ordered the release on bail of a young Christian girl jailed for allegedly desecrating the Koran, a decision that ends her three-week stay in jail and comes after the arrest of a Muslim cleric on charges of trying to fabricate the case against her.
Judge Muhammad Azam Khan's ruling was welcomed by human rights activists, who had argued that 14-year-old Rimsha Masih was too young to be incarcerated in an adult prison and was the victim of trumped-up charges.
Rimsha was arrested Aug. 16 after Muslims in her impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Islamabad accused her of burning pages of the Koran. Last week, Khalid Chishti, one of her accusers and an imam at a mosque in Rimsha's neighborhood, was charged with ripping pages from the Koran and planting them into a bag of ashes and trash that the girl was taking to a garbage bin.
"The fact is that this child should not have been behind bars at all," said Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director for Human Rights Watch. "All charges against her should be dropped, and Pakistan's criminal justice system should instead concentrate on holding her accuser accountable for inciting violence against the child and members of the local Christian community."
Pakistan has a dark history of intolerance, and its controversial blasphemy law has often been used as a tool to 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.
Muslims themselves are also frequent victims of abuse of the law; Pakistanis caught up in disputes with neighbors or business associates sometimes file false blasphemy charges as a means of settling scores with enemies.
The law makes it a crime to desecrate the Koran or in any way insult the prophet Muhammad or the Islamic faith. Usually, evidence in blasphemy cases is scant, apart from the accounts given by the alleged offender's accusers. A conviction can mean life in prison, or in some cases, the death penalty.
In a packed Islamabad court Friday, Rimsha's lawyers argued that the girl should be granted bail because of her age, and because one of her accusers now stands charged with trying to frame her. Khan set bail at 1 million rupees, about $10,600. The girl's lawyers said they expect her release on Saturday.
Though the judge gave no reason for his ruling, Rimsha's backers say his order bodes well for an eventual acquittal in the case.
"Had the case been strong, bail would not have been granted," said Robinson Asghar, chief coordinator for Paul Bhatti, Pakistan's minister for national harmony. Bhatti's office has been closely following Rimsha's case.
With the judge's order, the girl's security upon her release remains a major issue. Segments of Pakistani society are dominated by a conservative Islamist mindset, and in the past blasphemy allegations have led to mob violence against accused individuals. A mentally unstable man accused of blasphemy was dragged from a police station in the southern Punjab city of Bahawalpur in July and burned alive.
Asghar said Pakistani authorities will ensure the safety of Rimsha and her family. "She will get a police escort," he said. "The government is actively taking a very keen interest in the security of Rimsha."
-- Alex Rodriguez
Photo: Pakistan's minister for national harmony, Paul Bhatti, center, addresses reporters along with the lawyer for Rimsha Masih, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, second from left, and supporters in Islamabad. Credit: Farooq Naeem / AFP/Getty Images