Pakistani court adjourns blasphemy hearing

Court in Islamabad postpones bail decision as police investigate case of Christian girl accused of desecrating Quran.

    Pakistani court adjourns blasphemy hearing
    Members of the International Christian Alliance in Karachi chant slogans in support of the accused girl [Reuters]

    An Islamabad court has adjourned until September 3 the bail hearing in the case of the underage Christian girl accused of blasphemy, local media reported.

    Judge Muhammad Azam Khan adjourned the case on Saturday and asked police to investigate a bail application made on Rimsha Masih's behalf after prosecutors claimed paperwork had not been signed by the girl or her mother.

    On Friday, the local court had ordered Masih to be held in prison for two more weeks as police finish their investigation and decide whether to charge her, her lawyer and police said about the extension of her judicial remand.

    Speaking to reporters outside the court, Rimsha's lawyer Tahir Naveed Chaudhry accused prosecutors and lawyers for her accuser of using delaying tactics.

    "The medical report has declared her an underage person with low IQ. How can she commit blasphemy? She is innocent and should be released," he said.

    Meanwhile, in a separate development in the case, local media reported that the local prayer leader in Masih's neighbourhood, was arrested late on Saturday for allegedly manipulating evidence to make Masih appear guilty.

    The case has stoked controversy at home and abroad, and the legal proceedings have focused attention on Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws that can result in prison or even death for insulting Islam.

    Human rights activists have long criticised the laws and said they are used to persecute non-Muslims and settle personal scores.

    The court's decision on Friday was procedural, since the girl's initial two-week detention ended on Thursday, said her lawyer.

    On Friday, local TV video from the court showed the girl covered in a white sheet to protect her identity, and surrounded by police, including two female constables.

    This case generated an uproar because of reports that the girl was as young as 11 and suffered from Down syndrome.

    A neighbour has accused her of burning pages from Islam's holy book, the Quran, but her lawyer has denied the allegation.

    A medical report released this week said the girl was 14 and that her mental state did not correspond with her age.
    The report could mean the girl will be tried in the more lenient juvenile court system, which could possibly defuse the highly contentious case.

    Popular anger

    During an initial bail hearing on Thursday, the lawyer for the man who accused the girl of blasphemy asked that the medical report be rejected, saying it unduly favored the accused.

    The judge then delayed the hearing until Saturday to investigate the lawyer's accusations.

    Police arrested the girl from her neighbourhood in Islamabad on August 16 after an angry mob of several hundred appeared at a local police station, demanding action against her for alleged blasphemy.

    Authorities said at the time that they took her into custody partly to protect her from potential harm.

    People accused of blasphemy, even those who aren't convicted, often face vigilante justice by outraged Pakistanis.

    A Pakistani man accused of blasphemy in July was dragged from a police station in the centre of the country, beaten to death and his body set on fire.

    Christians in the girl's neighbourhood left the area en masse as soon as the accusations surfaced, fearing retribution from their Muslim neighbours.

    Controversial laws

    On Monday, the All Pakistan Ulema Council, an umbrella organisation of Muslim clerics, held a news conference together with the Pakistan Interfaith League and called for an investigation into whether the girl was wrongly accused and what role religious extremism played.

    The head of the clerics' council, Maulana Tahir-ul-Ashrafi, is seen as close to the government.

    It's unclear whether other government officials or clerics will speak out, since blasphemy is an extremely sensitive and potentially dangerous subject in Pakistan, where 97 per cent of the population is Muslim.

    Two prominent politicians who criticised the blasphemy laws were murdered last year.

    One was killed by his own bodyguard, who then attracted adoring crowds.

    Immediately following the girl's arrest, President Asif Ali Zardari issued a statement calling for an investigation, but he has said nothing since then.

    Several Shias killed

    Meanwhile, a campaign of violence directed against the country's Shia Muslims continued on Saturday, when seven members of the minority sect were killed in the southwestern province of Balochistan.

    Sectarian groups have been carrying out an increasingly violent campaign against mainly Shia Hazaras in recent weeks [Reuters]

    Wazir Khan Nasir, a senior police officer, said that four gunmen riding two motorcycles stopped a local bus near the central vegetable market of Quetta, the capital of Balochistan.

    The gunmen identified seven people belong to the Shia Hazara community, forced them off the bus and shot five of them dead.

    Two tried to run away but the gunmen chased them down and killed them in a nearby street, Nasir said.

    Hazaras are an ethnic group found in Afghanistan and Pakistan and are predominantly Shia.

    They've often been persecuted by Sunni hardliners who consider members of the sect to be heretics.

    There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

    Balochistan is the scene of an insurgency by nationalist groups who demand more rights and a greater share of the income generated through natural gas and minerals extracted from the province.

    The al-Qaeda-affiliated sectarian group Lashker-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which has been banned by the government, is also operating in the province.

    On Saturday, a judge in the eastern city of Lahore rejected a bail request made by Malik Ishaq, the founder of the LeJ, senior police official Ijaz Shafi said.

    He said Ishaq was arrested this week for making a speech inciting sectarian hatred against Shias.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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