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Pakistani Christian girl granted bail in blasphemy case

A Pakistani judge on Friday granted bail to a young, mentally challenged Christian girl accused of defaming Islam, but it is unclear whether the girl’s family will be able to afford the $10,400 bail.


AFP - A Pakistani judge on Friday granted bail to a Christian girl who has spent three weeks in jail after she was arrested for alleged blasphemy, in a landmark decision for a case that has sparked an international outcry.

Her lawyer said it was the first time anyone has been released on bail for blasphemy in Pakistan, where the inflammatory issue last year led to the assassination of two politicians.

The case of Rimsha Masih, who was accused of setting fire to papers that contained verses from the Koran, incited particular condemnation because she is underage, illiterate and said to suffer from learning difficulties.

Judge Muhammad Azam Khan announced her bail at one million rupees ($10,400) in a packed, sweltering courtroom after hours of chaotic proceedings, but Rimsha is likely to spend at least another night behind bars until bail bonds can be posted.

Since her arrest in a poor Islamabad suburb on August 16, she has been held in the same jail as the convicted killer of politician Salman Tasser, murdered outside a coffee shop by his bodyguard because he called for a reform to blasphemy laws.

An official medical report has classified her as "uneducated" and aged 14, but with a mental age younger than her years. Others have said she is as young as 11 and suffers from Down's Syndrome.

Rimsha's lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, said she would be released on Saturday at the earliest and that a date for the next hearing would be fixed in three or four months' time.

"It is unprecedented in the history of Pakistan for anyone accused of blasphemy to be granted bail," he said, insisting that Rimsha would have full protection after being freed.

"She will be kept in a safe and protected place with her family members," he said.

Pakistan's minister for national harmony, whose brother was also assassinated last year after calling for blasphemy law reforms, welcomed the verdict.

"We are in touch with the interior ministry and police, and they have assured us that wherever she stays full security would be provided to her," he told a news conference.

"Her mother is very happy that justice had been done," he said.

Supporters and human rights activists have demanded that the case be closed, particularly after a cleric who accused her was arrested for planting evidence implicating her -- another unprecedented development in Pakistan's blasphemy cases.

The US-based Human Rights Watch said she should never have been held in the first place.

"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," it said.

International advocacy group Avaaz said more than a million people across the world have signed a petition calling on the Pakistani government to release Rimsha, and on Friday called for her protection.

In Pakistan, where 97 percent of the population are Muslim, allegations of insulting Islam or the Prophet Mohammed prompt furious public reactions.

Rights groups have called on Pakistan to reform its blasphemy legislation, under which the maximum penalty is death, because it is often abused to settle personal vendettas.

Christians living in the Mehrabad suburb, where Rimsha was denounced, are talking about leaving.

"Several Christian families have already left and our landlords came telling us that they can no longer guarantee our security," said Yusef Masih, a father of eight.

"We don't want one of our daughters to become another Rimsha, that's why we want to leave," said Raymond Slamat, aged in his 40s.

But Muslim neighbours are furious that the cleric himself has been accused of desecrating the Koran.

"Here, 99 percent of people believe the imam is innocent," said Zulfikar Hamad. "Why did it take the authorities two weeks to accuse him? It's a plot," he said.

In July 2010 a Pakistani court released a mentally-ill woman held without trial for 14 years on allegations of desecrating the Koran.

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