Campaigners yesterday demanded the release of a schoolboy who was arrested and imprisoned for writing alleged blasphemous remarks about the Prophet Muhammad on an exam paper. Under the country's draconian laws, he could face the death penalty.
A magistrate ordered Muhammad Samiullah, 17, to be held at a juvenile detention centre in Karachi after the chief controller of the pupil's school exam board filed a complaint to police.
Mr Samiullah's arrest comes as hardliners demonstrated in support of the blasphemy laws, taking to the streets and threatening anyone who seeks to have them even amended. Human rights groups denounce the laws as discriminatory, helping the persecution of religious minorities and often used as a tool of social and political coercion.
"While Pakistan has earned global notoriety for abuses it perpetrates under the blasphemy laws, this is appalling even by those dismal standards," said Ali Dayan Hasan, of Human Rights Watch. "It is obscene that a mere child be imprisoned for scribbling something on an exam paper, however inappropriate it may have been."
It is unclear what Mr Samiullah may have written. When the police were asked about his alleged offence, they declined to elaborate, suggesting that it would blasphemous to repeat the words written. It is often the case, human rights groups say, that the evidence is disputable in cases of alleged blasphemy.
The arrest is reflective of an ugly mood which has spread across Pakistan since last month's assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who was killed by his own bodyguard for his opposition to the blasphemy laws.
The confessed assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, has been celebrated as a hero, by the religious right, sections of the media and the political class. Others have largely equivocated, or slipped into silent assent. "Taseer's assassination and the rash of blasphemy cases and accusations that have accompanied it illustrate eloquently the socially degrading effects of discriminatory legal frameworks," said Mr Hasan.
The few who continue to oppose the laws have been left shivering on the margins. Sherry Rehman, a liberal lawmaker who submitted a bill seeking to amend the blasphemy laws, has been forced to stop pursuing it, under pressure from her ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP). The move came after Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced that Ms Rehman had withdrawn the bill, apparently without having consulted her.
Ms Rehman says that she was never consulted by the Prime Minister, nor had she ever agreed to withdraw the bill. But now that Mr Gilani had announced that parliament will not even discuss the matter, and the committee set up to discuss the amendments has been disbanded, she has "no option but to abide by the party's decision".
"The changes I submitted were simple," said Ms Rehman. She wanted the laws amended to allow the accused to prove their innocence, have the cases tried in higher courts not district ones, and for the death penalty to be removed.
With a parade of ministers now breathlessly vowing that the blasphemy laws won't be touched, the ruling PPP has been widely accused, even by its supporters, of abandoning its own members in favour of capitulating to the religious right.