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11 year-old Pakistani Christian accused of blasphemy faces uncertain fate

Taha SiddiquiThe Christian Science Monitor

The bail hearing of a young Christian girl accused of blasphemy has been postponed until Sept.1 to verify a medical report confirming her age and reported mental handicap.

The girl was jailed more than two weeks ago after a local cleric accused her of burning religious texts. Under Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, the desecration of Islamic scriptures can earn a life sentence in prison. Local media have reported the girl has Down's syndrome, which was expected to give authorities a reason to exonerate her.

However, the latest twist is that the new prosecutor, a self-professed fan of the late Salman Taseer’s assassin, is questioning the girl’s age and claiming that she is part of an international conspiracy to ridicule Islam and incite Muslims. Response to his view highlights the power of extremists in Pakistan, say activists.

Observers worry that his public statement makes it difficult for the state, the judge, and the lawyers involved to refute the case without fear of being persecuted by extremists.

“The state is simply too weak to respond to such extremists,” says Asad Jamal, a legal expert and a human rights activist. “Scores of people have been killed who have been accused of blasphemy or were supporting those being abused by this law. The president tried to intervene once, but if he does it again, you never know, a ‘fatwa’ [an Islamic directive] can be issued by a cleric for his assassination,” he says.

Because the issue is so sensitive, any perception of bias on the part of the state could start a firestorm among extremists.

“The judge seemed intimidated by the lawyer of the accuser,” says Father Emmanuel Yousuf, a representative of a Christian activist organization who was present at the court. “I am really disappointed. We all expected that the girl will be out today. But she is still rotting in jail,” he said after the hearing, visibly distraught.

Though most legal experts say the medical certificate showing her age to be 14 is enough proof that she is a minor, which she will be tried under the juvenile system and can be granted bail, the prosecutor’s new lawyer, Rao Abdur Raheem complicated the case by challenging the validity of this certificate this morning.

“The state and its machinery are favoring her,” says Mr. Raheem, sitting near a photo of Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who shot Gov. Taseer for his liberal views on blasphemy laws. “We do not accept this medical report. My client witnessed the girl committing the act of blasphemy knowingly by desecrating the Quran and she should be punished,” Raheem told the Monitor in an interview in his office, after the hearing.

Raheem, who is fighting the case for free, says he will not let a blasphemer off the hook easily. “This is a conspiracy to ridicule Islam, and incite Muslims. We will not let this happen in our country,” he says.

Tahir Naveed Chaudhary, who is one of the lawyers on the panel defending the girl, says there is a lot of pressure on the lower courts due to this case.

“Everyone is scared. We did not expect it to stretch this long, but it is not even in the control of President Zardari now,” he says, referring to the inquiry Mr. Zardari ordered when the issue came to light.

Mr. Jamal, who has also worked on cases of blasphemy in the past, says the case is unfortunate. He’s critical of the government for being unable to protect a minor girl from being abused by the blasphemy law.

“I am not for judicial activism that we see nowadays at the level of Supreme Court, but where the state is failing, the lower courts are under pressure of right-wing extremist groups, and a whole community [the Christians] are at risk, the Chief Justice of Pakistan should take notice under Article 184 (3), which gives him the power to intervene in cases of public interest and severe violation of human rights, like this case,” he added.