Christian girl accused of burning Koran is cleared of blasphemy

Pakistani court dismisses all charges against her and rules evidence was planted

A court in Pakistan has acquitted a young Christian girl of blasphemy after she was accused of setting fire to a copy of the Koran in a case that sparked international controversy.

In the latest twist to a case that gripped the country, and which campaigners said underlined the need to reform Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws, the court in Islamabad ruled that the Rimsha Masih was not guilty, her lawyer said.

Earlier this summer, the young girl, who is believed to be 14-years-old, was arrested in the nation's capital after a Muslim cleric accused her of desecrating the Koran and furious crowds demanded that she be punished. Rimsha was then held in a maximum security jail, prompting outcry from international rights organisations.

However, she was granted bail in September after the cleric, Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, was himself later accused of tampering with evidence and of damaging the Koran to stir up resentment between religious communities.

Islamabad High Court Chief Justice Iqbal Hameed ur Rahman yesterday issued a 15-page judgement in which he threw out the case registered against Rimsha and urged Muslims to be extraordinarily "careful" while levelling such allegations, according to the Agence France-Presse. He said putting Rimsha on trial would have seen the courts "used as a tool for ulterior motive".

A lawyer for Rimsha, Abdul Hameed, said the court had exonerated his client for lack of evidence and dismissed all charges against her, concluding they were based on heresy and incriminated material that was planted on her.

"I am happy that the poor girl's ordeal is now over," he told The Associated Press after the hearing.

An official medical report classified Rimsha as being uneducated and said she was 14, but has a younger mental age. Other reports have suggested she is as young as 11 and suffering from Down's Syndrome. After she was released on bail in September, her family went into hiding in an undisclosed location in Pakistan.

Campaigners say blasphemy laws, which were tightened during the rule of Pakistan's former president Zia ul-Haq and which carry the death penalty, are routinely used to settle scores that have nothing to do with religion. While there are no records of anyone convicted being executed, many people accused of blasphemy have been killed before their case reached the courts.

Christian campaigners claim more than 30 people suspected of blasphemy have been killed by mobs or vigilantes over the past 20 years. Non-Muslims make up less than five per cent of Pakistan's 180 million people.

The government of President Asi Ali Zardari had once intended to amend the laws. Among the proponents of such a move was Salmaan Taseer, the former governor of Punjab province who was shot dead by one of his bodyguards after speaking out. The government subsequently dropped its plans to change the law. Another minister who spoke out, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also killed.

While the lawyer for Rimsha's family said she and her relatives were relieved by the court's decision, the matter may not be over. The prosecution yesterday indicated that it would appeal against the decision in the Supreme Court.

Local police said the case against the cleric will proceed, and he will be tried for making a false accusation.

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