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Hopes raised for Rimsha’s release after imam’s arrest

07 September 2012

AFP/GETTY

Facing charges: the iman Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, arrested on suspicion of evidence-tampering

Facing charges: the iman Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, arrested on suspicion of evidence-tampering

RIMSHA Masih, the young Pakistani Christian girl arrested and accused of blasphemy (News, 31 August), was expected to be released from prison this week, after a Muslim cleric was accused of planting incriminating evidence against her.

The chairman of the country's leading body of Muslim clerics, All Pakistan Ulema Council, Allama Tahir Ashrafi, said at a press conference that Rimsha was "a daughter of the nation", and demanded that all the organs of the Pakistani state come together to investigate the circumstances surrounding her arrest for allegedly burning pages of the Qur'an.

He attacked Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, the imam from the deprived Mehrabadi neighbourhood of Islamabad, who was accused over the weekend of tampering with evidence in order to ensure the girl's conviction. "Our heads are bowed with shame for what Chishti did," Mr Ashrafi said.

He said that Mr Chishti was merely the front man for other individuals "behind the scene" who wanted to stoke antagonism against the Christian minority in the area to force them to flee. "I have known for the past three months that some people in this area wanted the Christian community to leave so they could build a madrasah there," he said. He promised to divulge more information about the alleged plot soon.

Mr Ashrafi said that he had been moved to speak out after reading reports that Rimsha had Down syndrome, a condition that also affects his own 15-year-old son.

Mr Chishti was accused last week by his own deputy, Hafiz Mohammad Zubair, who told police that he saw Mr Chishti add two pages from the Qur'an to the burnt refuse that the girl was carrying. Mr Zubair told a TV network: "I asked him what he was doing, and he said this is the evidence against them, and this is how we can get them out from this area."

Now, two more witnesses have implicated the imam in the plot.

Rimsha's lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, said that the arrest of Mr Chishti proves his client is innocent, and he will move to throw the case out. He was due to make a bail application today.

Mr Chishti, who was led to court in shackles, wearing a white blindfold, denied the charges. "I have not done anything wrong," he told reporters. "This is all fabrication."

It is the first time in a blasphemy case that someone has ever been arrested for fabricating evidence. The head of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, Ali Dayan Hasan, said the decision to act against the cleric was "unprecedented". "What it indicates," he said, "is a genuine attempt at investigation rather than blaming the victim, which is what normally happens in blasphemy cases. They are actually taking a look at incitement to violence and false allegations. It is a welcome and positive development."

An online petition calling for Rimsha's release has been signed by more than 900,000 people worldwide.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Pakistan's Minister for National Harmony, Paul Bhatti, said that he was proposing to set up an interfaith commission that would vet blasphemy allegations before they reached the courts. It would have the power to reject spurious accusations before they whipped up a media frenzy, putting pressure on courts to produce guilty verdicts despite flimsy evidence. The measure had emerged from talks with leaders of the Red Mosque, renowned for its hard-line stance.

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