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Call to protect ‘blasphemy charge girl’

ISLAMABAD: Amnesty International has urged Pakistan to reform its blasphemy laws and protect a young Christian girl arrested for allegedly burning pages inscribed with verses from the holy Quran.

Rimsha, who is between 10 and 13 years old and is reported to have Down’s syndrome, was taken into custody in a low-income area of Islamabad last week after furious Muslims demanded that she be punished.

Police said on Wednesday they had registered a case against more than 150 people for damaging public property in protests, a spokesman for Islamabad police said. A report had been passed to senior officers who would decide what action to take, police said.

Polly Truscott, Amnesty International’s South Asia director, said the case showed the “erosion of the rule of law” in Pakistan and the dangers faced by those accused of blasphemy. “Amnesty International is extremely concerned for Rimsha’s safety. In the recent past individuals accused of blasphemy have been killed by members of the public,” Truscott said in a statement issued on Tuesday night.

President Asif Ali Zardari on Monday ordered officials to explain the arrest, while Christians fled the neighbourhood of Mehrabad in fear at Muslim anger over the incident.

Truscott welcomed Zardari’s response but warned it would count for little unless there were “greater efforts to reform the blasphemy laws to ensure they cannot be used maliciously to settle disputes or enable private citizens to take matters into their own hands”.

There has been growing concern in the West over religious intolerance in Pakistan following the assassinations last year of a leading politician and a Christian cabinet minister who spoke out against the blasphemy law.

“The continued failure to reform these laws has effectively sent the message that anyone can commit outrageous abuses and attempt to excuse them as defence of religious sentiments,” Truscott said. Meanwhile, an influential Church organisation has decided to hold an international conference in Geneva next month on Pakistan’s blasphemy law, after an 11-year-old Christian girl was detained.

Religious and secular groups worldwide have protested over the arrest last week of the girl accused by Muslim neighbours of sacrilege.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) said the conference was intended to give a global platform to religious minorities in Pakistan “who are victimised in the name of its controversial blasphemy law” in cases which had brought death penalties and
“mob-instigated violence”.

It will be addressed by representatives of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Ahmadis, Shias and civil society groups defending them.

The WCC said officials from the United Nations, where special human rights investigators on religious freedom have often criticised the blasphemy law, would also attend. But Pakistani diplomats in Geneva have not been invited.

The conference will be held from Sept 17 to 19 during a sitting of the UN Human Rights Council.