In a rare move, a Pakistani judge granted bail of $10,500 today to a young, mentally challenged Christian girl accused of insulting Islam by burning pages of the religion's holy book.
The case has focused attention on Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws, which activists claim are used to persecute minorities and settle personal vendettas.
The girl, who medical officials say is 14 years old, was arrested after an angry mob surrounded her house in the capital, Islamabad, and accused her of burning pages from the Koran, an act punishable by life in prison. Her lawyer has denied the allegation.
Bail is rarely granted in blasphemy cases, which carry a stiff penalty of life in prison or death. The bail decision came after a cleric was accused of planting evidence to incriminate the girl and could signal that the case will be thrown out entirely.
Rights activists, who have been calling for the girl's release, welcomed the decision.
Judge Mohammed Azam Khan set bail at 1 million Pakistani rupees, or about $10,500, a significant sum in a country where many families live on only a few dollars a day. A Pakistani group that represents minorities said it would pay the bail.
"We feel that this is the real victory of truth and law," said Robinson Asghar, an aide to the Pakistani minister for national harmony who has been closely following the case.
Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, a lawyer representing the girl, said the bail would be paid tomorrow, then she would be freed. The girl, who is being held in a prison in Rawalpindi, near the capital, Islamabad, has Down Syndrome, according to her lawyers.
Chaudhry said the defence team would next move to have the entire case dismissed.
In an unusual twist, police arrested a Muslim cleric from her neighborhood a week ago after a follower from his mosque accused him of stashing pages of a Koran in the girl's bag to make it seem as if she burned them. He allegedly planted the evidence to push Christians out of the neighborhood and is now being investigated for blasphemy himself. He has denied the allegation.
The judge gave no reason for granting bail. During the lengthy hearing in an Islamabad courtroom, attorneys for the young girl argued that the accusations against the cleric had raised reasonable doubt about her culpability in the case.
"No evidence has been brought up against her for willfully committing this crime," said one of her lawyers, Pervez Khan.
Khan said people in the neighborhood where she lived wanted to evict the Christians.
"To achieve this nefarious design, they have framed a minor girl in this case," he said.
A lawyer for Malik Ammad, the man who brought the complaint against the girl, said the judge felt she was better able to defend herself outside prison but cautioned that the case would continue.
"This doesn't mean the allegations against her were wrong," Rao Abdur Raheem said.
While today's hearing was only to determine whether the girl should get bail, the judge's decision signaled a degree of sympathy for the girl.
Previous blasphemy cases have inspired widespread condemnation of the defendants by a Pakistani public that generally supports the laws. But few Muslim clerics or political leaders are pushing for her prosecution, likely due to the girl's age and mental state. In fact, a Pakistani association of Muslim clerics have been advocating on her behalf.
The head of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, Ali Dayan Hasan, praised the judge's decision to grant the young girl bail.
"All charges against her should be dropped," Hasan said. "Human Rights Watch hopes that the blatant abuse that has come to light in this case will lead to a considered re-examination of the law, and all stakeholders in Pakistan will actively seek to end frequent abuses perpetrated under cover of blasphemy allegations."
Whether the case will lead to any changes in the blasphemy laws remains to be seen.
One of the key questions is whether she and her family will be safe once the girl is out from behind bars. People accused of blasphemy have often been victims of vigilante justice by angry mobs.
Last year two prominent politicians were gunned down in Pakistan for suggesting that the blasphemy laws should be amended so that they cannot be misused. The killer of one of the politicians was later lauded by supporters who threw rose petals whenever he appeared at court.
One of the girl's lawyers, speaking before the bail decision was announced, said it would be the responsibility of the government to protect her and her family if she's released but that he was confident they would be able to do it.
"We are really worried about her security," said Raja Ikram Ameen Minhas.