AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
Tuesday 21 August 2012
Last Update 21 August 2012 4:15 am
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s president called on officials yesterday to explain the arrest on blasphemy charges of a Christian girl with Down Syndrome who allegedly burnt pages inscribed with verses from the Qur’an.
There is a growing debate about religious intolerance in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where strict anti-blasphemy laws make defaming Islam or desecrating the Qur’an punishable by death.
The girl, Rimsha, was arrested in a low-income neighborhood of the capital on Thursday and remanded in custody for 14 days after furious Muslims demanded she be punished, police said.
Speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, police said the girl was 16 years old.
Activists and neighbors say she is between 10 and 13 years old.
President Asif Ali Zardari took “serious note” of her arrest and called on the interior ministry to submit a report on the case, state media said.
His government has been heavily criticized in the West for refusing to reform the anti-blasphemy law, despite the assassinations of a leading politician and a Christian cabinet minister who spoke out against the law in 2011.
Human rights activists say the law is often used to settle petty disputes.
Some reports suggested the girl had been burning papers collected from a rubbish pile for cooking when someone entered her house and accused the family of burning pages inscribed with verses from the Qur’an.
Muslim anger over the alleged incident forced Christians to flee the mixed neighborhood of Mehrabad, 20 minutes’ drive from Western embassies.
Police investigator Zabhiullah Abbasi said Rimsha had been remanded until Aug. 25, when she will be charged in court with blasphemy in Adiyala jail.
The bodyguard killer of Punjab governor Salman Tasser, who was murdered in January 2011 for his opposition to the law, is being held in the same place.
Abbasi said Rimsha was illiterate but denied she had Down’s Syndrome.
“The girl is 16-year-old as per the medical report and she is normal,” Abbasi told AFP.
Rimsha’s house was locked yesterday and no one was at home, said an AFP reporter. Local police said the family had gone to relatives outside Islamabad.
A neighbor, Malik Wahid, 18, said the girl was about 10-11 years old and did not appear “insane”.
But an official of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, told AFP the girl had Down’s Syndrome — a condition that causes various degrees of learning difficulties.
Otherwise, Christians who fled for shelter with relatives elsewhere in Islamabad were now gradually returning to Mehrabad, he added.
The Women’s Action Forum, a leading Pakistani organization fighting for the rights of women, condemned Rimsha’s arrest.
Taseer was assassinated in January 2011 and minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti two months later for their opposition to the blasphemy law.
They had taken up the plight of a Christian mother sentenced to death for blasphemy in late 2010. She remains in prison.
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