Girl held under Islam blasphemy law


ISLAMABAD – A Pakistani Christian girl detained on accusations of defaming Islam was too frightened to speak in a prison where she is being held in solitary confinement for her safety, an activist who said he had visited her said yesterday.

Religious and secular groups worldwide have protested over the arrest last week of Rimsha Masih, accused by Muslim neighbours of burning Islamic religious texts.

There have been conflicting reports on Masih’s age and her mental state. Some media have said she is 11 and has Down syndrome. Her lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, said her family had informed him she was 14 years of age and mentally ill.

One police official said she was 16 and mentally sound.

The case has put another spotlight on Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law, which human rights groups say dangerously discriminates against the conservative Muslim country’s tiny minority groups.

Christian activist Xavier William said he visited Ms Masih at a police station where she was first held, then this week in prison.

“She was frightened and traumatised. She was assaulted and in very bad shape. She had bruises on her face and on her hands,” he added, referring to an attack by a mob in her village on the edge of Islamabad after she was accused of blasphemy.

Under the blasphemy law, anyone who speaks ill of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad commits a crime and faces the death penalty, but activists say vague terminology has led to its misuse.

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.

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

A neighbour named Tasleem said her daughter saw Ms Masih throwing away trash that included the burned religious material. “If Christians burn our Koran, we will burn them,” she said. Other Muslims were more conciliatory.

“We protected the rest of the Christians,” said Ms Masih’s landlord, Malik Amjad Mohammad. “People here support them.”

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.

Ms Masih is due to appear in court in the next 10 days. She could be formally charged with blasphemy.– (Reuters)