The head of Pakistan’s leading body of Muslim clerics Tuesday demanded fair treatment for a young Christian girl accused of blasphemy, as a medical report said she appeared to be mentally subnormal.
Allama Tahir Ashrafi, chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, said if Rimsha, accused of burning papers containing verses from the Koran, was found to be innocent, her accusers should face justice.
The cleric said protesters who demonstrated to demand punishment for the girl, who reportedly suffers from Down’s Syndrome, were following the “law of the jungle”.
Rimsha has been held since August 16 under the Islamic republic’s strict blasphemy laws, prompting concern from Western governments and the Vatican and anger from rights groups.
After confliciting reports about her age, she was taken on Monday from prison to hospital for tests, which said she was “approximately 14″, according to the assessment by a seven-doctor panel seen by AFP.
The local cleric who handed Rimsha over to police insisted on Friday that she was fully aware of what she was doing when she burned the papers, but the medical report suggested she may be mentally impaired.
“She appears uneducated and her mental age appears below her chronological age,” the single-page report said.
Around 120 uniformed police officers guarded the hospital during Rimsha’s visit, a senior doctor told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive subject in the nation of 180 million people, 97 percent of whom are Muslims, and those convicted of defaming Islam or desecrating the Koran can face life imprisonment or even the death penalty.
In July a mob of more than 2,000 snatched a mentally unstable man from a police station, beat him to death and torched his body after he was accused of burning pages from a Koran.
Ashrafi urged the government to take action to protect Christians in the poor Islamabad suburb of Mehrabad, where Rimsha lives, and encourage Christian families who fled in fear after the incident to return.
“This is inhuman that those who have nothing to do with the case or are not a party to it are also being harassed,” Ashrafi told AFP.
“It is just like the law of jungle that 500 people approached a police station and got a report forcibly lodged with the police.”
Human rights activists have warned blasphemy laws are often used to settle personal vendettas and last year two prominent politicians were assassinated for speaking out against the legislation.
Ashrafi said Rimsha’s case should be a watershed for Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
“We demand an impartial and thorough investigation into the case. Strict action should be taken against all those accusing the girl if she is found innocent,” he said.
“The government should make this case an example so that nobody will dare misuse the blasphemy law in future.”
The intervention from Ashrafi, a prominent member of the Defence of Pakistan council, a coalition of right-wing and hardline Islamist groups, was somewhat unexpected, but he warned that if the case was mishandled it would reflect badly on Muslims.
“It happened many times that weak probes in such cases led to defaming our religion. It is because of this reason that we have demanded a thorough and fair probe,” he said.
After Rimsha’s age was determined by doctors, her lawyer Tahir Naveed Chaudhry said they had applied to have her case proceed under juvenile law.
At a brief hearing in the case on Tuesday, Judge Raja Jawad Hassan adjourned proceedings until Thursday after defence lawyers submitted a bail application.
AFP journalists cover wars, conflicts, politics, science, health, the environment, technology, fashion, entertainment, the offbeat, sports and a whole lot more in text, photographs, video, graphics and online.
Raw Story is a progressive news site that focuses on stories often ignored in the mainstream media. While giving coverage to the big stories of the day, we also bring our readers' attention to policy, politics, legal and human rights stories that get ignored in an infotainment culture driven solely by pageviews.
Founded in 2004, Raw Story reaches 9 million unique readers per month and serves more than 30 million pageviews.