Bail for Pakistani girl accused of blasphemy offers hope for case's dismissal

But mentally disabled teenager who was held in solitary cell may have to flee Pakistan's hardliners

A mentally disabled Christian girl in Pakistan who was jailed on blasphemy charges was finally granted bail by a court yesterday, but her life is now under severe threat from militants.

The agony of solitary confinement in an adult, maximum-security prison should end this morning for Rimsha Masih, after more than three weeks. But she still faces the prospect of a full trial on the blasphemy allegations.

Her lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, told The Independent that they would now try to head off a trial by having the case dismissed at the Islamabad High Court, with their petition likely to be lodged within days. "There is no direct evidence against Rimsha. This is a case for quashment," said Mr Chaudhry.

The Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, announced in parliament that Rimsha would be taken into protective custody "in case of a violent reaction". Dozens of people charged with blasphemy have been murdered over the years before conviction or after the court has found them innocent.

Last year, two senior members of the government were gunned down by extremists in separate attacks, for merely criticising the workings of the blasphemy law, including the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, who was murdered by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri.

Rimsha's parents have already been in hiding since her arrest on 16 August, from the slum on the outskirts of Islamabad where they had lived in a one-room house. She was accused, by a neighbour and the imam of the local mosque, of having burnt pages of the Koran and another religious text in a plastic bag that she was carrying.

A district court in Islamabad, which had previously twice postponed a decision on Rimsha's bail, granted her release, on a hefty Rs1m (£6,500) surety bond. The All Pakistan Minorities Association posted the bail. It is likely that ultimately Rimsha and her family will have to flee abroad. Bail being given on blasphemy charges is unknown but was possible in this case after the district court's judge accepted that she is a juvenile under law, despite objections from the aggressive lawyer, Rao Abdur Raheem, representing Rimsha's accuser. Mr Raheem has a poster of the convicted killer Mumtaz Qadri on the wall above his desk.

Mr Malik bolstered her defence when he told parliament that though Rimsha is 14 years old, "her mental age is seven". The girl's parents, who maintain that she is 11 years old, say has Down's syndrome. Mr Malik, who this week ordered a further investigation, said: "The material in the bag was burnt wood, not burnt papers."

Rimsha's case is tragic but, for the first time, there has been government and public support for someone accused under the country's draconian blasphemy laws, which only protect Islam. A group of Islamic clerics, led by Tahir Ashrafi, a mullah associated with hardliners, leapt to Rimsha's defence, calling her a "daughter of the nation" and offering to protect her if the government couldn't.

The state also fought back in Rimsha's case. A week ago, Khalid Jadoon Chishti, the imam of her neighbourhood mosque, was himself arrested and charged with blasphemy, for allegedly tearing up pages from the Koran and putting them in the bag that was handed over to police. He had already admitted in a television interview that he had sought to drive out the Christians from the mixed area, as music from the church disturbed prayers at the mosque. Mr Raheem, the lawyer for the other accuser, Malik Amad, said: "There are so many hurdles being created by the government's investigators in favour of Rimsha. But everyone knows that she is guilty."

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