Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The case of Rimsha Masih

Charges of desecrating the Koran or blaspheming the prophet Mohammed can be a matter of life or death in Pakistan for those accused.

It is not uncommon for charges of blasphemy to be used against the poorest minorities - no blasphemy charges have been filed, for instance, against Zoroastrians, the most educated and well-off minority community in Pakistan - in order to settle personal scores or as an exercise in religious prejudice.

Rimsha Masih is a mentally handicapped girl, said to be 14 - some claim she is only 11 - from a Christian family. Her parents are said to be street sweepers. Some reports say Rimsha is unable to read.

Three weeks ago a Muslim shopkeeper alleged to have a score to settle with Rimsha's sister went into a mosque with a plastic bag containing burnt paper Rimsha had been collecting which had come from a book which included Koranic texts.

A Muslim mob entered the mainly Christian area where Rimsha lived calling for the death of unbelievers. Some 50 families fled the neighbourhood. Rimsha and her sister were severely beaten.

Rimsha was imprisoned, charged with desecrating the Koran, and was said to be deeply traumatised by her ordeal. Her parents are in hiding. There was sympathy for the girl because of her age and mental disability.

Then came an unusual development.

Witnesses claimed an imam at the mosque had mixed torn pages from the Koran with the burnt pages in Rimsha's bag to strengthen the case against her and help rid the area of Christians.

In an unprecedented move, the country's leading body of Muslim clerics, the All Pakistan Ulema Council, then spoke out in favour of Rimsha. The imam has been arrested and is expected himself to face charges under blasphemy laws.

On Friday, Rimsha was granted bail and taken to a safe house. She will still have to face the charges. Even if acquitted, she will not be able to return home. Guilty or not, people accused of blasphemy have met with death at the hands of Muslim vigilantes.

The case has become something of an international cause celebre, and may lead to some review of blasphemy laws in Pakistan.

Even so, it is not easy to speak out against the laws. Two senior politicians in Pakistan have been assassinated for doing precisely that.