Muslim cleric held for framing girl

Sun, Sep 2, 2012, 01:00

Pakistani authorities have arrested a Muslim cleric on allegations of framing a Christian girl who was arrested under the country's controversial anti-blasphemy laws.

Religious and secular groups worldwide have protested over the detention in August of Rimsha Masih, accused by Muslim neighbours of burning Islamic religious texts.

Police official Munir Hussain Jafri said a cleric was arrested after witnesses from Masih's village on the edge of the capital Islamabad complained about his alleged actions.

"Witnesses complained that he had torn pages from a Koran and placed them in her bag which had burned papers," he said.

A bail hearing will be held on tomorrow for the girl, whose case has re-focused a spotlight on Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law.

Under the law, anyone who speaks ill of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad commits a crime and faces the death penalty.

Activists and human rights groups say vague terminology has led to its misuse, and that the law dangerously discriminates against the Muslim country's tiny minority groups.

Critics of Pakistan's leaders say they are too worried about an extremist backlash to speak out against the law in a nation where religious conservatism is increasingly prevalent.

Convictions are common, although the death sentence has never been carried out. Most convictions are thrown out on appeal, but mobs have killed many people accused of blasphemy.

There have been conflicting reports about Masih's age and her mental state. Some media have said she is 11 and suffers from Down's Syndrome.

A hospital said in a report she was about 14 but had the mental capacities of someone younger, and was uneducated.

Masih's arrest triggered an exodus of several hundred Christians from her poor village after mosques reported over their loudspeakers what the girl was alleged to have done.

Christians, who make up 4 per cent of Pakistan's population of 180 million, have been especially concerned about the blasphemy law, saying it offers them no protection.

Convictions hinge on witness testimony and are often linked to vendettas, they complain.

In 2009, 40 houses and a church were set ablaze by a mob of 1,000 Muslims in the town of Gojra, in Punjab province. At least seven Christians were burned to death. The attacks were triggered by reports of the alleged desecration of the Koran.

Two Christian brothers accused of writing a blasphemous letter against the Prophet Mohammad were shot dead outside a court in the eastern city of Faisalabad in July of 2010.

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