ISLAMABAD: The apparent collapse of a case against a Christian girl accused of burning pages containing verses from the holy Quran has given a dim ray of hope to critics of Pakistan's blasphemy laws.
The girl was believed to be mentally impaired, and a cleric from her neighborhood was eventually arrested for planting evidence to incriminate her. As the tables turned on her accusers, the girl was recently released on bail and whisked away in a military helicopter with her family to safety.
It was a remarkable turn of events in a country where people accused in even the flimsiest of cases of blasphemy have few defenders. Those accused of blasphemy can be sentenced to death if convicted — assuming they are not killed first by vigilantes.
Human rights activists and others hope the girl's case will, at the very least, help prevent further abuses of laws designed to punish people for maligning Islam. Some Islamic religious figures came to her defence, bail was granted and an accuser arrested. All steps are extremely rare, but the question is whether that will translate into deeper change.
"We need to build on that," said Mustafa Qadri, a Pakistan researcher with Amnesty International.
Nevertheless, there is little appetite to repeal or amend the blasphemy laws, which remain very popular among Pakistanis. A coming election and fear of assassination will likely scuttle any attempt at meaningful change, experts said. Instead, the case may remain the lone exception.
"The great concern is that once this case dies down the real concrete steps that need to be taken, won't be taken," Qadri said.
The girl was arrested on Aug 18 when an angry mob surrounded her house in a poor section of Islamabad after word rapidly travelled through the neighborhood that she had burned pages containing verses from the holy Quran. Christians left the neighborhood en masse, fearing they would be targeted as has happened in other parts of Pakistan when minorities are accused of committing blasphemy.
The case immediately struck a chord in Pakistan and abroad, partly because of the girl's age and questions about her faculties. A medical report listed her as 14 and said her mental age didn't match her physical age. Her lawyers said she has Down syndrome.
Among Pakistanis, cleric Tahir Mahmood Ashrafi was one of the first to come to her defence outside of the small group of liberals who have long advocated against the abuse of the blasphemy laws.
Ashrafi said he was moved to defend the girl partly because he has a son who also has Down syndrome. He said he would like to see steps to prevent the misuse of the blasphemy laws, such as having a senior level police officer investigate cases and authorities punish people who falsely accuse others of blasphemy. But he contended there was no need to change the laws themselves.
Paul Bhatti, an adviser to the prime minister, said the arrest of the cleric would discourage other people from bringing false blasphemy claims. The cleric is accused of planting pages from a copy of the holy Quran in a bag of burned material the girl was carrying and then bringing it to police, allegedly to drive Christians from the neighborhood.
Bhatti said he would be holding a seminar with religious and political leaders to discuss how to prevent misuse of the blasphemy laws.
"I think this is a test case," said Bhatti. "We hope that the misuse of the law will be prevented."
But so far there's been no push to submit legislation amending the laws. That's in part because of the violent repercussions for people who have suggested changes. Bhatti's own brother, the sole Christian minister in the government and an opponent of the blasphemy laws, was assassinated last year for suggesting they be amended to prevent misuse.
A report by the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies said that since 1990, 52 people have been killed by vigilantes after being implicated in blasphemy cases.
Among many Pakistani clerics, there is still a great deal of suspicion about the apparent outcome of the case and about the considerable international attention it received. Tayyab Farooqui, the head of the Islamabad chapter for the Council for Protection of the Finality of the Prophet, questioned whether the imam actually played a role in planting evidence and why Western countries take such an interest in blasphemy cases but not murders or other heinous crimes.
Another cleric said after seeing photos of the girl upon her release that he doubted she was a minor.
A lawyer for the girl says she has been largely unaware of the furor her case has caused. Tahir Naveed Chaudhry said the legal team will now push for the case to be dropped entirely. The girl is staying at a secure, undisclosed location with her parents and five siblings, he said.
"She is happy that she is back to her family," he said.
Pakistan has some of the roughest blasphemy laws in the world. People found guilty of defiling the Quran get life in prison. Those convicted of maligning Prophet Muhammad are sentenced to death.
In other countries blasphemy laws tend to carry lesser punishments or are designed to protect all religions. In few countries do such accusations elicit the popular outrage they do in Pakistan:
— In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, people can be sentenced to up to five years in prison for "distorting" the central tenets of the six officially recognised religions.
— In Iran, the Islamic penal law offers considerable latitude, as offenders can be given anything from one year in prison to the death penalty.
— In Kuwait, the opposition this year tried to make blasphemy a capital crime. The emir later dissolved parliament but it remains a prominent issue in the oil-rich kingdom.