World News‎ > ‎

Christian girl's arrest sparks demands for blasphemy law repeal

posted 25 Aug 2012, 16:14 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 25 Aug 2012, 16:15 ]

Pakistani Christians protest in Karachi over last week's arrest of Rimsha Masih, the girl accused by Muslim neighbours of burning Islamic religious texts.

KARACHI, PAKISTAN (AUGUST 25, 2012) (REUTERS) - Dozens of people from Pakistan's Christian community staged a protest in their country's biggest city Karachi on Saturday (August 25), condemning the arrest of a young girl, accused of blasphemy.

Religious and secular groups worldwide have protested over the arrest last week of Rimsha Masih, accused by Muslim neighbours of burning Islamic religious texts.

She was detained in Islamabad after mobs surrounded a police station where she was in protective custody.

Holding banners and placards, about fifty men and women protested outside the Karachi Press Club, in a demonstration organised by a non-governmental organization called Alpha Human Rights Care Association.

"Rimsha has been sent to jail without any proof. We demand this law should be repealed, people are misusing it. And Rimsha should be released immediately," said Bishop Arshad Khokhar, chairman of Bishop Council in the Sindh province, of which Karachi is capital.

The case has shone a spotlight on Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law, which rights groups say dangerously discriminates against the conservative Muslim country's minority groups.

There have been conflicting reports on Masih's age and her mental state.

Some media have said she is 11 and suffers from Down syndrome. Masih's lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, said her family had informed him she was mentally ill. One police official said she was 16 and mentally sound.

A Christian activist Xavier William told Reuters in Islamabad on Friday (August 25) that he had visited Masih at a police station where she was first held, and this week in prison.

The girl was too frightened to speak in prison, where she is being held in solitary confinement for her safety.

Under the blasphemy law, it is considered a crime for anyone to speak ill of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad.

People accused of committing blasphemy face the potential of the death penalty. Activists say vague terminology has led to misuse of the law.

Convictions are common, although the death sentence has never been carried out. Most convictions are thrown out on appeal, but mobs have killed many people accused of blasphemy.

Masih's arrest triggered an exodus of several hundred Christians from her poor village after mosques reported over their loudspeakers what the girl was alleged to have done. Emotions were running high.

Masih's landlord said the people protected her and the rest of the Christians in the vicinity.

"We called the police. We handed her over to police without making any damage or harm to her," Malik Amjad told Reuters earlier in the week.

A neighbour named Tasleem said her daughter saw Masih throwing away trash that included the burned religious material.

"If these Christians dare to do these kinds of things, they will burn our houses tomorrow; they can harm the mosque here. They can do anything tomorrow if we don't stop them today," she said.

Other Muslims were more conciliatory.

Christians, who make up four percent of Pakistan's population of 180 million, have been especially concerned about the blasphemy law, saying it offers them no protection. They say convictions hinge on witness testimony and are often linked to vendettas.

In 2009, 40 houses and a church were set ablaze by a mob of 1,000 Muslims in the town of Gojra, in Punjab province. At least seven Christians were burned to death. The attacks were triggered by reports of the desecration of the Koran.

Two Christian brothers accused of writing a blasphemous letter against the Prophet Mohammad were gunned down outside a court in the eastern city of Faisalabad in July of 2010.

President Asif Ali Zardari has told officials to produce a report on the girl's arrest, which has brought protests from human rights agencies including Amnesty International and the British-based Christian group Barnabas Fund.

Masih is due to appear in court within the next 10 days. She could be formally charged with blasphemy.