Freed Pakistani Christian girl ‘will need armoured vehicle to protect her’
Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, a lawyer for Rimsha Masih, leaves court with an armed escort. Photograph: Faisal Mahmood/REUTERS
A lawyer representing a Pakistani Christian girl accused of desecrating the Qur’an who was granted bail on Friday said he will not push for her to be released from jail until her security can be guaranteed.
He claimed that Rimsha Masih, the 14-year-old accused by a neighbour of committing an act of blasphemy last month, will require an armoured vehicle and a substantial number of bodyguards to protect her.
“The prime concern of the defence team is her safety and her life,” said Raja Ikram, one of the lead defence lawyers in a case that has put Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws under intense scrutiny.
He added: “She is at grave risk in the sense that the people who managed this whole drama and fabricated the evidence against her most certainly wish her harm.”
In addition to security concerns more time is needed to arrange a surety bond of more than £6,000, he said.
Rimsha became the first person ever accused of blasphemy to win bail after a morning of heated legal arguments in a hot, overcrowded courtroom in Islamabad, in large part due to the extraordinary turn of events in the case.
Earlier this week, more than two weeks after Rimsha was first arrested, new witnesses came forward alleging she had been framed by the head of the local mosque in the impoverished neighbourhood where a Christian minority live.
The mullah was accused by his own deputies of adding pages torn from the Qur’an to a plastic bag of burned refuse that Rimsha had been seen carrying near her home on 16 August.
Locals said the bag contained charred sacred texts from the Qur’an. It is alleged that the mullah, Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, then added additional pages from the Qur’an in order to strengthen the evidence against her.
People living in the neighbourhood of Mehrabadi said Chishti helped to whip up anti-Christian sentiment in the town and then publicly welcomed the mass departure of hundreds of Christians who fled for other parts of Islamabad.
Individuals accused of blasphemy have been killed by vigilante groups in the past, including one case last year when a mob swarmed on a police station in Punjab, pulled out a suspect in a case and burned him in the street.
Ikram said Rimsha was at risk even though he acknowledged the girl had received unprecedented support from senior Muslim clerics who spoke out in her favour and even pledged to protect her.
Weeks after the arrest, relations between the Christian and Muslim communities in Mehrabadi are still strained.
Earlier in the week, Muslims living near Chishti’s mosque spoke of their fury at the arrest of their imam, who they insisted had been framed.
“The truth is Rimsha did burn our prayers,” said Mohammad Zaman Malik, an owner of a construction business. “She confessed and apologised in front of everyone.”
He said the Muslim community had been unfairly portrayed by the media and that Rimsha was fully aware of her actions: “They say she is mentally retarded, but why would she be going house to house working if she had such a condition?”
Although many of the Christian families that initially fled the area have since returned, many others have come back simply to pack up and leave. They complain that they have been forced to close their tiny concrete churches – Chishti and others had long complained about the “noise” of their services – as well as being subject to derogatory name-calling and the refusal of some shopkeepers to sell them food.
On Wednesday one young Christian man was stacking up the contents of three of the single-room houses made of crumbling concrete that entire families rent from Muslim landlords for about £15 a month onto a small flatbed truck. It represented all of the belongings of three families, all of whom were departing for other areas of the capital.
“Many people are leaving,” said Naeem Masih, a 20 year-old painter. “Rimsha was just the tip of acrimony that has been developing for a long time. The situation may be normal for the time being but it will reoccur.”
The landmark decision to grant Rimsha bail came after hours of legal wrangling.
Lawyers acting for the complainant, a man called Malik Hammad who first claimed to have spotted the girl carrying the bag of material, tried to frustrate proceedings by arguing the bail application paperwork was not in order.
They also challenged the age of Rimsha and claimed that she did not have any mental disabilities – a long-standing claim of her defenders, many of whom also say she has Down’s syndrome.
But with the investigating officer in the case adamant that she had been deliberately framed the judge eventually decided to grant bail.
A decision on whether she will have to stand trial will be made after officials have finished their investigation into an affair that has once again sparked intense criticism of the country’s blasphemy laws.
Critics have long said the laws, which carry the death penalty and long jail terms, are routinely abused with accusations levelled against innocent people in order to settle disputes.
This week the chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council alleged Rimsha was targeted as part of a land-stealing scam intended to scare away the Christian community.
Ali Dayan Hasan, the Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch, said the organisation welcomed the court decision and urged the government to guarantee her security.
“The fact is that this child should not have been behind bars at all,” he said. “All charges against her should be dropped and Pakistan’s criminal justice system should instead concentrate on holding her accuser accountable for inciting violence against the child and members of the local Christian community.”
He added that the organisation hoped the case would “lead to a considered re-examination of the law”.
However, most analysts say reform, let alone repeal, of the decades old law is highly unlikely as the country gears up for national elections.