ISLAMABAD, Pakistan In a court decision that even a Muslim cleric called a "milestone in the history of Pakistan," the blasphemy case against a Pakistani Christian girl has been dismissed for lack of evidence.
In his judgment Nov. 20, the justice who heads the Islamabad High Court urged extreme caution in matters related to blasphemy and criticized the practice of fake blasphemy accusations against non-Muslims, according to The New York Times.
Rimsha Masih, reportedly an impoverished 14-year-old with Down syndrome, was arrested in August near Islamabad after neighbors accused her of burning an Islamic textbook. In theory, she could have faced execution.
The accusations led to an international outcry that renewed focus on Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, The Times said. Though the law enjoys widespread support among Pakistanis, critics say it is abused by people involved in disputes or against members of religious minorities, Reuters reported.
A police investigation revealed that a local cleric had framed Masih by adding pages of the Quran to a heap of burned textbook pages that were found in a bag she was carrying, The Times said. He was arrested and then released on bail.
The fact that no one had seen Masih burning pages of the textbook used to teach the Quran to children was central to the judge's decision.
Her lawyer expressed optimism about what the verdict could mean.
"I feel that with the development today, people who abuse blasphemy law will be discouraged. I hope this will bring a full stop to false blasphemy cases," Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, Masih's attorney, said, according to The Times.
The chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, a group of Muslim clerics who sought the girl's release, called the court decision a "milestone in the history of Pakistan," The Times said.
Reuters reported that the number of blasphemy cases have been rising in Pakistan, and although the death sentence has never been carried out following conviction, "mobs often take the law into their own hands," resulting in 52 people being killed after being accused of blasphemy since 1990.
Though she was granted bail in September, Masih and her family have been in hiding because of fears for their safety, The Times reported.
In an earlier report by Open Doors News, Masih's lawyer said Masih and her family would remain in Pakistan once her legal ordeal was over. They would try to settle back into something resembling a normal life rather than seeking asylum outside Pakistan, Chaudhry said.
"This is the first case of its kind when a person charged under the strict blasphemy laws is exonerated from the accusation," Chaudhry told Open Doors. "This case has also brought for the first time a debate on how these laws are misused to target innocent people."
Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, used Masih's case as an opportunity to insist the blasphemy law must not be used as a cover to settle personal scores, Open Doors reported.