ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A judge in Pakistan granted bail on Friday to a Christian girl accused of burning a religious textbook, a significant step in a controversy that has renewed scrutiny of the country’s blasphemy laws.

After a lengthy hearing with heated arguments, Justice Muhammad Azam Khan ordered that the girl, Rimsha Masih, be released on bail of one million rupees, or $10,500.

Ms. Masih, who comes from a family of poor Christian sweepers, has been detained in a high-security prison since mid-August, when Muslim neighbors in her Islamabad suburb accused her of burning a textbook used to teach the Koran to small children.

Her age and mental fitness remain a matter of dispute. In court on Friday, her lawyers said church records said she was 12, but a medical report put her age as 14 and said she had Down syndrome. The prosecution has challenged that, saying she is 16 and not developmentally disabled. As of Friday evening, Ms. Masih had not yet been released.

The decision to grant bail was significant because blasphemy cases can take many months to come to trial in Pakistan, during which time the girl would have been incarcerated in a notorious high-security facility.

Campaigners called on the police to go a step further, and drop the charges entirely, because Ms. Masih is a minor. “The police should come forward and say there is no case, and that there will be no trial,” said Asma Jahangir, the country’s most prominent human rights lawyer.

The case has come to represent what many see as the abuses carried out in the name of Pakistan’s colonial-era blasphemy laws, which critics say are often used to intimidate members of minority groups. Ms. Masih was jailed after hundreds of Muslims protested outside her local police station at the instigation of a cleric, Muhammad Khalid Chishti, who said she should face the full force of the law – including, possibly, the death penalty.

This week, the police detained Mr. Chishti on suspicion that he planted pages from the Koran on Ms. Masih in an apparent effort to frame her. Since then, calls have grown for the case to be dropped.

In court on Friday, lawyers made long and often fiery arguments that, at one point, prompted the judge to ask that decorum be respected.

Ms. Masih’s lawyers said the blasphemy charge was a ruse on the part of a local “land mafia,” with the goal of evicting up to 400 Christian families from her neighborhood.

Munir Jafferi, a police officer, told the court that Mr. Chishti had added two pages of the Koran to a bundle of already burned pages from the religious textbook in an effort to bolster the evidence against Ms. Masih.

Days earlier, Mr. Jafferi said, some Muslims in the locality had objected to Christians’ playing music during religious services. During Friday Prayer, Mr. Chishti “asked the landlord to evict the Christians from the neighborhood,” he said.

Rao Abdur Raheem, the main lawyer for the prosecution, questioned the veracity of the medical report that put Ms. Masih’s age at 14. He also rejected claims that she has Down syndrome.

“I have seen and met the girl,” he said. “She is 16 years old.” In his bail order, Justice Khan upheld the findings of the medical report regarding Ms. Masih’s age.

Outside the courtroom, a group of children with Down syndrome held a banner that read, “We want to meet Down syndrome girl Rimsha.”

Human Rights Watch welcomed the ruling in a statement on Friday, urging that all charges against Ms. Masih be dropped. “The fact is that this child should not have been behind bars at all,” the statement read.

An international advocacy organization, Avaaz, said it had gathered more than a million signatures from around the world in support of Ms. Masih.

It is unusual, though not unprecedented, for a blasphemy suspect to be granted bail in Pakistan. Asma Jahangir, the country’s leading human rights lawyer, said she had obtained bail for clients in similar cases in the past.

After the hearing Friday, Mr. Raheem, the prosecution lawyer, said he accepted the judge’s order as a conscientious Pakistani citizen.

“The accused and the co-accused are both Pakistanis,” he said. “Rimsha had an allegation against her. She is welcome to go back to her home.”

He said he would wait until a detailed court order was issued Saturday before deciding whether to appeal.

If the prosecution of Ms. Masih continues, her trial is not expected to take place for at least several months.

Source: The NY Times


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