Protest against Pakistan’s blasphemy arrest

Christian community in port city of Karachi demand release of an 11-year-old girl arrested for blasphemy.

Protest over girl arrested for blasphemy in Pakistan
The arrest of 11-year-old Rimsha Masih has put the spotlight on Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law [AFP]

Christian community in Pakistan has held protest in the port city of Karachi over the arrest of an 11-year-old girl accused of blasphemy.

About 50 men and women gathered in Karachi on Saturday, demanding that Rimsha Masih, the arrested girl, be released and that Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law be done away with.

“Rimsha has been sent to jail without any proof. We demand this law should be repealed, people are misusing it. And Rimsha should be released immediately,” said Bishop Arshad Khokhar, chairman of Bishop Council in the Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital.

Those who attended the protest, organised by non-governmental organisation Alpha Human Rights Care Association, are not alone in their outrage over the arrest.

The case has shone a spotlight on Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law, which rights groups say dangerously discriminates against the conservative Muslim country’s minority groups.

Solitary confinement

There have also been conflicting reports on Masih’s age and her mental state.

Some media have said she is 11 and suffers from Down syndrome.

Masih’s lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, said her family had informed him she was mentally ill. One police official said she was 16 and mentally sound.

A Christian activist Xavier William told Reuters news agency in Islamabad on Friday that he had visited Masih at a police station where she was first held, and this week in prison.

The girl was too frightened to speak in prison, where she is being held in solitary confinement for her safety.

Under the blasphemy law, it is considered a crime for anyone to speak ill of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad.

People accused of committing blasphemy face the potential of the death penalty. Activists say vague terminology has led to misuse of the law.

Convictions are common, although the death sentence has never been carried out. Most convictions are thrown out on
appeal, but mobs have killed many people accused of blasphemy.

Christian exodus

Masih’s arrest triggered an exodus of several hundred Christians from her poor village after mosques reported over their loudspeakers what the girl was alleged to have done.

Masih’s landlord said the people protected her and the rest of the Christians in the vicinity.

“We called the police. We handed her over to police without making any damage or harm to her,” Malik Amjad told Reuters earlier in the week.

A neighbour named Tasleem said her daughter saw Masih throwing away rubbish that included the burned religious material.

Christians, who make up four per cent of Pakistan’s population of 180 million, have been especially concerned about the blasphemy law, saying it offers them no protection. They say convictions hinge on witness testimony and are often linked to vendettas.

In 2009, 40 houses and a church were set ablaze by a mob of 1,000 Muslims in the town of Gojra, in Punjab province. At least seven Christians were burned to death.

The attacks were triggered by reports of the desecration of the Quran.

Two Christian brothers accused of writing a blasphemous letter against the Prophet Mohammad were gunned down outside a court in the eastern city of Faisalabad in July of 2010.

President Asif Ali Zardari has told officials to produce a report on the girl’s arrest, which has brought protests from human rights agencies, including Amnesty International and the British-based Christian group Barnabas Fund.

Masih is due to appear in court within the next 10 days. She could be formally charged with blasphemy.

Source: News Agencies