Pakistani Christian accused of blasphemy granted bail

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Pakistani court has granted bail to a Christian girl accused of blasphemy, but her lawyer says he will not seek her release until her security can be guaranteed.

The Telegraph reported that Judge Muhammad Azam Khan set bail of 1 million rupees (about $10,000) for Rimsha Masih, who has been imprisoned for three weeks on charges of desecrating the Quran. While prosecuting attorneys argued that blasphemy suspects are not entitled to bail, Masih's defense said she was a minor and should be set free.

But in a development that illustrates the mortal danger surrounding blasphemy accusations, one of Masih's lawyers says he will allow her to remain in prison until arrangements can be made for her safety.

"She is at grave risk in the sense that the people who managed this whole drama and fabricated the evidence against her most certainly wish her harm," Raja Ikram, one of Masih's lead defense lawyers, told the Guardian, claiming Masih will need bodyguards and an armored vehicle to protect her.

Masih's case has drawn international scrutiny since she was arrested three weeks ago for allegedly desecrating the Quran, a crime that carries a life sentence in Pakistan. A young man in Masih's neighborhood claimed he saw her carrying a trash bag with burnt pages of the Quran, and police arrested the girl after an irate mob demanded action and threatened to burn her alive.

But since then, the Muslim imam in Masih's neighborhood has been arrested for planting evidence against her. That coupled with her age and mental state (an official medical review determined she is roughly 14 and has mental difficulties) has brought even conservative Muslim clerics to her defense.

Paul Bhatti, who heads Pakistan's Ministry of National Harmony, hailed the support of Muslim leaders in Masih's case.

"I am very hopeful for that and very happy that justice has prevailed," he told the Washington Post, also saying that arrangements had been made to move Masih to a secret location upon her release.

The head of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan also praised the bail decision, telling the Associated Press that Masih should never have been arrested.

"All charges against her should be dropped, and Pakistan's criminal justice system should instead concentrate on holding her accuser accountable for inciting violence against the child and members of the local Christian community," Ali Dayan Hasan said.

According to the Guardian, Christians in Masih's neighborhood are on edge, subjected to derogatory treatment and forced to close their churches.

"Many people are leaving," Naeem Masih, a 20 year-old painter, told the Guardian. "Rimsha was just the tip of acrimony that has been developing for a long time. The situation may be normal for the time being but it will reoccur."

The girl's parents are in protective custody, likely to protect them from murderous vigilantes, who in the past have killed blasphemy suspects and those defending them. In a statement quoted by the advocacy group Avaaz, Masih's father lamented the violence and intimidation surrounding his daughter's case.

"We are a poor Christian family, witnessing mob fury over my daughter's case," he said. "And many other families have faced similar intimidation forcing them to either flee or live in fear."

Masih's case has raised calls to reform Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which critics say are often used to persecute religious minorities or settle personal vendettas. But no action on the laws is expected, and opposing them can be deadly.

Last year, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province and a critic of the blasphemy laws, was gunned down by his own bodyguard, who was praised by many Pakistanis for defending Islam. Shahbaz Bhatti, who at the time was Pakistan's minority affairs minister and is the brother of Paul Bhatti, was also assassinated by Islamic extremists after calling for reform of the laws.