ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – A Christian girl who was arrested under Pakistan’s controversial anti-blasphemy law may have moved a step closer to freedom on Sunday after police detained a Muslim cleric on suspicion of planting evidence to frame her.
Still, Rimsha Masih, whose arrest last month angered religious and secular groups worldwide, may be in danger if she returns from jail to her village.
Some Muslim neighbors insist she should still be punished, and said the detained imam was a victim.
Under Muslim Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law, the mere allegation of causing offence to Islam can mean death. Those accused are sometimes killed by members of the public even if they are found innocent by the courts.
“Pour petrol and burn these Christians,” said Iqbal Bibi, 74, defending the imam on the steps of the mosque where he preaches in Masih’s impoverished village of Mehr Jaffer.
“The cleric of the mosque has been oppressed. He is not at fault. He is innocent.”
Masih was accused by Muslim neighbors of burning Islamic religious texts and arrested, but on Sunday police official Munir Hussain Jafri said a cleric had been taken into custody after witnesses reported he had torn pages from a Koran and planted them in Masih’s bag beside burned papers.
The imam, Khalid Jadoon Chishti, appeared briefly in court on Sunday before he was sent to jail for a 14-day judicial remand.
A bail hearing will be held on Monday for Masih, whose case has re-focused a spotlight on Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law, under which anyone who speaks ill of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad commits a crime punishable by death.
Activists and human rights groups say vague terminology has led to its misuse, and that the law dangerously discriminates against the country’s tiny minority groups.
Critics of Pakistan’s leaders say they are too worried about an extremist backlash to speak out against the law in a nation where religious conservatism is increasingly prevalent.
In January 2011, the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his own bodyguard because the governor had called for reform of the anti-blasphemy law.
Two months after Taseer’s murder, Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was killed by the Taliban for demanding changes to 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.
Masih’s case has raised a high level of concern because of her age and media reports that she suffers from Down’s Syndrome.
Some reports have said she is 11. A hospital said in a report she was about 14 but had the mental capacities of someone younger, and was uneducated.
Christians, who make up four percent of Pakistan’s population of 180 million, have been especially concerned about the blasphemy law, saying it offers them no protection.
Convictions hinge on witness testimony and are often linked to vendettas, they complain.
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 Koran.
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.
Masih’s arrest triggered an exodus of several hundred Christians from her village after mosques reported over their loudspeakers what the girl was alleged to have done.
In the village, many Christian homes — crude cement structures along crowded, dusty alleys — are still padlocked.
A few Christians have returned but are reluctant to discuss Masih’s case, saying it was up to the courts.
“We are poor people. What can we do?” said one, Mahmood Masih, adding that he was not scared of his Muslim neighbors.
Muslims in the village, where mangy dogs sniffed through piles of garbage near goats as an ice cream seller pedalled by on his bike, were far more vocal.
“If the cleric gets charged in this case we are all behind him. There will be unrest,” warned Tasleem Maqbool, a woman in a black veil who said her daughter saw Masih throwing away trash that included burned religious materials.
Village clerics like Chishti hold far more sway over Pakistanis than government officials. They lead prayers and give guidance on many aspects of life.
“The cleric should be freed,” said Noman, a 12-year-old boy wearing a t-shirt and shorts as bearded men gathered at the village mosque and barefoot children played nearby.
“She (Masih) should be punished.”