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Asia

Pakistani Christian girl awaits 'justice'

Pakistani rights activists have protested against the slow pace of trial against Rimsha Masih, a teenage Christian girl who is accused of desecrating the Koran.

Rimsha Masih, a Pakistani Christian girl accused of blasphemy, will spend at least three more days in jail after a court in Islamabad adjourned her trial until Friday.

Masih, who is aged between 10 and 13, allegedly burnt pages with the verses from the Koran inscribed on them. The incident took place on August 16 after which Masih was taken into police custody.

According to some media reports, the girl was burning papers that she collected from a rubbish pile for cooking when some Muslims entered her house in the Mehrabadi town near capital Islamabad and accused her of burning the Islamic text.

Pakistani officials claim the girl suffers from Down's Syndrome, a genetic disorder causing major learning disabilities.

Western governments have expressed serious concern over the arrest of Masih.

Pakistan President Asif Zardari

President Zardari has ordered the interior ministry to submit a report on the case

Blasphemy, or the insult of Prophet Mohammad, is a sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where 97 percent of the 180 million population are Muslims. Rights organizations point out to cultural and legal discrimination against minorities in Pakistan. Rights activist also demand the reforms in controversial anti-blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

Activists say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas.

Unprecedented

Last week, in a highly unexpected move, Pakistani authorities arrested Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti - the religious cleric who accused Masih of blasphemy - on suspicion of deliberately framing Masih by planting charred Koranic texts.

"The Imam (Chishti) was arrested after his deputy Maulvi Zubair and two others told a magistrate he added pages from the Koran to the burnt pages brought to him by a witness," police investigator Munir Hussain Jaffri told the press.

Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti

Chishti earlier said Masih had no mental disability

Many religious organizations in Pakistan have also spoken out against Masih's arrest, which political observers say is a rare thing in the Islamic country.

Tahir Ashrafi, chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, urged the Pakistani government on Monday to investigate the case, which according to him was a "conspiracy."

"Our heads bowed in shame for what Chishti did," Ashrafi told the media, adding that there were "many others active behind the scene and they should be brought to justice."

Controversial anti-blasphemy laws

Pakistani civil society has stepped up their protests against the custody of Masih, who they claim is innocent. They say that Masih's case highlights systematic discrimination of Christians and Hindus in Pakistan in the name of Islam.

Pakistani rights activist Fauzia Minallah told DW that it was the first time in Pakistan's history that religious groups had done "something right by speaking in favor of the blasphemy victim.”

"This is indeed a very positive development. We must appreciate that a junior cleric at the Mehrabadi mosque came forward and gave evidence against Chishti, the mosque's chief," said Minallah.

But Farzana Bari, director of Center for Women's Studies at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University, said that unless the Pakistani government reformed anti-blasphemy laws, discrimination against minorities would not stop.

"It is high time that Pakistani government reform these anti-blasphemy laws. These laws are even against the spirit of Islam and are a cause of notoriety for Pakistan," Bari told DW.

The fear factor

Former Governot of Punjab Salman Taseer, right, with Christian woman Asia Bibi in Sheikhupura near Lahore

Former Punjab governor Taseer was assassinated for speaking out against anti-blasphemy laws

On Monday, Masih's lawyer Raja Ikram told the media that his client should immediately be released on bail.

"The prosecution has completely failed. There is nothing left in this case now," said Ikram.

Pakistani Human rights groups and liberal lawyers have expressed their dissatisfaction over the slow pace of Masih's trial and say the Pakistani judiciary and the authorities are afraid of the backlash from the Islamists if they released Masih.

"There is an atmosphere of fear in Pakistan when it comes to addressing a blasphemy case," said Minallah. "That, in my opinion, is one of the major reasons behind the court's procrastination otherwise I don't see any reason why the poor child should be kept in the Adiala Jail (in Rawalpindi)."

Pakistani President Zardari's PPP (Pakistan People's Party) government has come under criticism from the country's rights organizations and the West for refusing to reform the anti-blasphemy laws despite the assassinations of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian cabinet minister, and Salman Taseer, the former Governor of Punjab province. The two politicians were brutally murdered by Islamists in 2011 because they had dared to speak out against the controversial laws. There murder cases are still pending in Pakistani courts.

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