The arrest of an 11-year-old Christian girl on charges of blasphemy has triggered international outrage, and calls for Pakistan to reform its controversial blasphemy laws.
Amnesty International led the charge on this count, urging Pakistan to reform its blasphemy laws and protect Rimsha Masih, an 11-year-old reported to have Down Syndrome, who was arrested for allegedly burning pages inscribed with verses from the Holy Quran. She was taken into custody in a low-income area of Islamabad on Thursday after a furious mob demanded she be punished.
Polly Truscott, Amnesty International’s South Asia director, said the case showed the “erosion of the rule of law” in Pakistan and the dangers faced by those accused of blasphemy.
“Amnesty International is extremely concerned for Rimsha’s safety. In the recent past, individuals accused of blasphemy have been killed by members of the public,” Truscott said in a statement issued late Tuesday.
Truscott welcomed President Asif Ali Zardari’s move seeking an explanation for the arrest, but warned it would count for little unless there were “greater efforts to reform the blasphemy laws to ensure they cannot be used maliciously to settle disputes or enable private citizens to take matters into their own hands.”
“The continued failure to reform these laws has effectively sent the message that anyone can commit outrageous abuses and attempt to excuse them as defence of religious sentiments,” Truscott said.
Neighbours said Rimsha had burned papers collected from a garbage pile for cooking in her family home and someone alerted the local cleric after spotting the remains being thrown out as rubbish.
Joining Amnesty International in its condemnation was the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). A statement released by the HRCP read: “The fact that the girl is a juvenile and suffers from Down’s Syndrome only makes the charge more preposterous and barbaric. It is also extremely disturbing to note that the police allowed a mob to surround the police station and demand that she be handed over.”
The statement expressed concern over the country’s political leadership being unwilling to speak out against extremism and injustices towards non-Muslims. The authorities should immediately release the girl, it added.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Christians in Mehrabadi village (where the incident took place), fearing a backlash, have vacated their houses since the incident on the advice of the Islamabad Police.
“I had asked them to leave for a safe place, otherwise they might have been burnt alive in their houses,” SHO Qasim Niazi of Ramna police station admitted when contacted by The Express Tribune.
One of the residents of the area requesting anonymity contacted The Express Tribune by phone and disclosed that the landlords of Mehrabadi gathered in the main mosque after prayers on Wednesday on the call of one Malik Munsif Dad, who told the landlords that their Christian tenants should be forced to leave.
“I opposed this decision, but it was very difficult for me to swim against the water because they are in a majority,” said the source. Some 25 Christian families returned to their houses in the village at their own risk with the help of locals – but the majority remains reluctant to go back and are waiting for assurances from the administration and the police of their safety. “We can go back but what if we’re attacked again after a few days?” questioned Surriya, who is living with her five children in her cousin’s house in Islamabad’s G-7 sector.
A number of displaced families now living in different sectors of the capital told The Express Tribune that they ran from their homes when they heard the announcement from the loudspeakers on a nearby mosque. They quoted a cleric as saying ‘All you chooras (a derogatory term for a South Asian Christians) must leave here immediately or we will pour petrol on you and burn you alive …You sweepers are only deserving of such treatment.’
A close aide of Dr Paul Bhatti, Advisor to the Prime Minister on Interfaith Harmony, told The Express Tribune that Islamabad Police chief Bani Amin Khan was not ready to give assurances in cases where Christian families have returned to their homes. The source also revealed that Rimsha’s family was in the protective custody of the Islamabad IG. Dr Bhatti could not be approached as he has left for Rome where he is likely to address a press conference on the issue.
The only witness of the alleged incident of blasphemy committed by Rimsha is reported to have had possible ulterior motives. Hammad, 19, is a close relative of the owner of the rented house where Rimsha’s family resided. Nida Nazir, a representative of the local Christian population, shared her concern about the credibility of the eyewitness. She said that Hammad was an addict and wanted to have affair with Rimsha’s elder sister.
Hammad and the local cleric who made the announcement are unwilling to talk to the media about the authenticity of the incident.
Many of the evacuees said that local shopkeepers have boycotted the Christian community and refuse to sell them goods.
(WITH ADDITIONAL INPUT FROM AFP)
Published in The Express Tribune, August 23rd, 2012.
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