Pakistan court delays blasphemy case hearing

Lawyer challenges validity of medical report putting age of Christian girl accused of burning part of Quran at 14.

Critics of Pakistan's blasphemy laws say they can be used to settle vendettas or seek retribution [AFP]

The bail hearing of a Pakistani Christian girl accused of blasphemy has been delayed after a lawyer questioned a medical report putting the girl’s age at 14, suggesting the government had tried to influence it.

The challenge on Thursday quashed the possibility that the controversy surrounding the case of Rimsha Masih would be swiftly defused and the girl set free.

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

The case has focused attention on Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws that can result in life in prison or even death.

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

Christians in Masih’s Islamabad neighbourhood left the area en masse as soon as the accusations surfaced, fearing retribution from their Muslim neighbours as the case has inflamed religious tensions in Pakistan.

Questions have been raised about her age, whether she is mentally impaired, what exactly she was burning and why.

Mental state

A medical report submitted on Tuesday put Masih’s age at 14, which would have moved the case to the more lenient juvenile justice system.

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It said her mental state was even less than that of a 14-year-old, which raised questions about whether she had the capacity to understand her actions.

But a lawyer representing a man who is accusing Masih of burning the Quran, challenged the validity of the report in a court hearing in Islamabad.

Rao Abdur Raheem said the report was ordered by a senior city official and completed even before the judge himself ordered it to be carried out.

Saying the process was “unduly favouring the accused”, he asked the judge to reject it.

Speaking after the hearing, Abdur Raheem said supporters of the victim were trying to turn this case into an international issue along the lines of Asia Bibi.

The case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death in 2010 for insulting Islam, gathered massive international attention and criticism for Pakistan’s tough anti-blasphemy laws.

Sentiments of Muslims

Abdur Raheem claimed that Masih had confessed to burning part of a Quran and said he would seek the maximum punishment.

He said no one should be allowed to hurt the sentiments of Muslims by desecrating their holy book or by insulting their religious personalities.

“If you burn me, I will forgive you, but if you burn our Quran, then I will fight a legal battle to seek maximum punishment for anyone doing this act,” he said.

“We will not accept any such thing.”

Under the Pakistani legal system, everyday citizens can bring a court case against someone simply by hiring a lawyer.

A state prosecutor was also in the courtroom, as were two defence lawyers for the girl, but the proceeding was dominated by Abdur Raheem.

Critics of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws say they can be used to settle vendettas or seek retribution. Many of Pakistan’s minorities, including Christians, live in fear of being accused of blasphemy.

No protection

A neighbour of Masih named Tasleem said her daughter saw her 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 Muhammad were shot dead outside a court in the eastern city of Faisalabad in July of 2010.

Source: News Agencies