Pakistan president demands investigation into arrest of disabled Christian girl accused of blasphemy after 'burning pages of the Koran'


Pakistan’s president has demanded an investigation into the arrest of a young Christian girl, said to have Down’s Syndrome, who has been accused of blasphemy after she allegedly burned pages of the Koran.

In what activists say is the latest incident to highlight growing religious intolerance in the country and the misuse of its anti-blasphemy laws, the girl was arrested last week in Islamabad after hundreds of her Muslim neighbours surrounded her family’s home and complained to the police. They claimed the girl, identified as Rimsha Masih, had burned pages of the Koran and had been spotted with the ashes.

Members of the Christian community claimed the girl was aged between 11-13, but police said Rimsha was 16. The police said that while Rimsha was illiterate, she was not suffering from Down’s Syndrome and that she has been detained until 25 August when she will be charged with blasphemy. Her parents have been taken into protective custody after threats were levelled at them.

This evening, Farhatullah Babar, a parliamentarian and a spokesman for President Asif Ali Zardari, said a report into the incident was expected to be passed to the president’s office some time today. “The president has called for a report into this incident, to find out what happened. He should know what is going on,” he said.

Reports into what precisely took place are conflicted, but some say Rimsha had been burning papers collected from a rubbish pile for cooking when someone entered her house and accused the family of burning pages inscribed with verses from the Koran.

Whatever is the truth of the allegations, anger among the Muslim families in the city’s poor Mehrabad neighbourhood led to many Christians fleeing in fear. It was reported last night that some are now returning.

The incident is just the latest controversy involving the country’s blasphemy laws, which date back to the dates of British rule and which were tightened during the regime of military leader Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. Campaigners say they are routinely used to settle personal scores rather than for dealing with cases of genuine blasphemy.

Anyone convicted of blasphemy faces a possible death sentence though it is not clear whether such a punishment has ever been carried out.

However, people accused of the offence are often attacked and targeted and a number have been killed.

Among the most notorious cases is that of Asia Noreen, also known as Asia Bibi who was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death in 2010. Mrs Noreen, who denied the allegations, and her lawyers have appealed for clemency.

Among those who spoke out in her defence was Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, who was shot dead by a member of his own security detail in January 2011 because of the politician’s calls to reform the laws. His self-confessed killer is being held in the jail where Rimsha’s case will be heard.

Two months after Mr Taseer was shot dead in Islamabad, the country’s minorities’ minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, who had similarly supported reforming the law, was also shot dead in the capital.

Mr Bhatt’s brother, Peter Bhatti, chairman of International Christian Voice, an organisation based in Canada, said Pakistan had become increasingly influenced by extremists.

“People’s mindsets are changing because of the teachings of the extremists,” he said. “The only solution has to be through the government, and secular people who want to bring peace and harmony.

These people need to be supported by the international community.”