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Pakistan's Christian cabinet member urges blasphemy rethink
Islamabad, Pakistan - Paul Bhatti gave up a comfortable life as a surgeon in Italy to join the government earlier this year following the assassination of his brother, Shahbaz, who campaigned for reform of the controversial law.
Today he heads the Ministry of National Harmony, one of the most dangerous jobs in the country as he navigates Pakistan's religious and ethnic divides.
Choosing his words carefully, for fear they could be twisted to present him as an opponent of Islam, he said the case of Rimsha Masih, an 11-year-old girl who has spent two weeks on remand, showed the law was being abused.
"I don't think we have to reform the law itself," he told The Daily Telegraph in his heavily guarded office. "But we have to stop its misuse.
"This situation shows there are occasions where it is misused, which defames Islam, the country and frames innocent people." He is proposing to set up an interfaith commission that would vet blasphemy allegations before they reach the courts. It would have the power to reject spurious accusation before they have whipped up a media frenzy, putting pressure on courts to produce guilty verdicts despite flimsy evidence.
The measure, he added, had emerged from talks with leaders of the Red Mosque, notorious for its hard-line stance.
He said he hoped it could prevent cases such as Rimsha, whom he believes was accused as part of a long-running vendetta against Christians.
Three witnesses came forward at the weekend to say they had seen a Muslim cleric adding pages from an old Koran to ashes in Rimsha's bag.
Dr Bhatti said he hoped she would now be freed at a bail hearing due on Friday "Her general condition is OK but as you can imagine she is a young girl locked away from her family, in a strange situation, having some learning difficulties so she is very disturbed and is often asking for her mother and to go home," he said.
Blasphemy is a difficult issue to discuss freely in Pakistan. Six Frontier Constabulary bodyguards, armed with AK-47s, sit at Dr Bhatti's door – a reminder of the fate of his brother.
Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down in his car last year, after taking up the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. He was the second politician to be assassinated within weeks.
Dr Bhatti said his wife and daughter pleaded with him not to give up his practice in Padua and return to Pakistan.
But he said he had no intention of becoming a martyr and was trying to keep a low profile.
"If you don't come to take some bold steps then things will never change, the minorities will never be protected," he said. "I am taking safety measures but I know the risk is there." He said he was considering bolstering his bodyguard but that he was haunted by the case of Salman Taseer, a blasphemy campaigner shot dead by one of his own security guards.
"You just never know," he said with a nervous chuckle.
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