Islamabad, Pakistan — A Pakistani court on Tuesday dismissed charges against a Christian girl accused of desecrating the Koran, ending a case that had cast a spotlight on the country’s controversial blasphemy law and renewed questions about the treatment of minorities.
The Islamabad High Court concluded there was no evidence to support allegations that Rimsha Masih, 14, had ripped pages from the Koran on Aug. 16 and burned them, said one of her lawyers, Akmal Waheed Bhatti.
Rimsha spent three weeks in jail but was later freed on bail after police came across evidence they say shows an imam at a mosque in her neighborhood had ripped pages from a copy of the Koran and planted them in a bag of ashes and trash that the girl was taking to a garbage bin.
The cleric, Khalid Chishti, now faces charges of fabricating evidence against Rimsha. Chishti was among the group of Muslims in Rimsha’s neighborhood who claimed she had violated the blasphemy law. He is free on bail and awaiting trial.
“We were on firm ground because there were no witnesses to back up the charges,” Bhatti said. “It was a fabricated story.”
In Pakistan, it is a crime to desecrate the Koran or insult the prophet Muhammad or the Islamic faith in any way. In some instances a conviction can lead to the death sentence.
The law is often exploited as a tool to settle scores against adversaries or persecute minorities, particularly Christians and Ahmadis, members of a Muslim sect viewed by most Pakistanis as traitors to Islam because they revere another prophet in addition to Muhammad.
Bhatti said Rimsha and her family remain in Pakistan at an undisclosed location and are being provided security by the government.
A conservative Islamist mentality still dominates in segments of this society, and in the past blasphemy allegations have led to mob violence against accused individuals. Last July, a mentally unstable man accused of blasphemy was dragged from a police station in the southern Punjab city of Bahawalpur in July and burned alive.
Rimsha’s lawyers had maintained that friction between Christians and Muslims living in Rimsha’s impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital may have led to the blasphemy charges. Local Muslims had grown increasingly frustrated with the presence of Christians, Rimsha’s supporters say, and had been talking of the need to force them out.
After the teen’s arrest, many Christians in her neighborhood left their homes, fearing reprisals from local Muslims.
Pakistan’s application of its blasphemy law continues to be one of the country’s most divisive issues. In January 2011, a prominent liberal politicians, Punjab provincial Gov. Salman Taseer, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards, who later said he committed the murder because Taseer had openly criticized the law.
Two months later, assailants shot to death Shahbaz Bhatti, the country’s minority affairs minister and a Christian who, like Taseer, was an outspoken opponent of the law.