US says 'deeply disturbed' as Pak jails girl accused of blasphemy
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US says 'deeply disturbed' as Pak jails girl accused of blasphemy

A Christian girl was sent to a Pakistani prison after being accused by her furious Muslim neighbors of burning pages of the Islamic holy book, the Quran, in violation of the country's strict blasphemy laws. What is Pakistan's blasphemy law? | Insane to accuse girl of blasphemy: Pak daily

world Updated: Aug 21, 2012 20:15 IST
christians in pakistan,blasphemy law in pakistan,news

A Christian girl was sent to a Pakistani prison after being accused by her furious Muslim neighbors of burning pages of the Islamic holy book, the Quran, in violation of the country's strict blasphemy laws.

A police official said on Monday there was little evidence that pages of the book had been burned and that the case would likely be dropped.

But hundreds of angry neighbors gathered outside the girl's home last week demanding action in a case raising new concerns about religious extremism in this conservative Muslim country.

Some human rights officials and media reports said the girl was mentally handicapped. Police gave conflicting reports of her age as 11 and 16.

Under Pakistan's blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad or defiling the holy book, or Quran, can face life in prison or even execution. Insane to accuse girl of blasphemy: Pak daily

Critics say the laws are often misused to harass non-Muslims or target individuals.

Mukhtar Khan, neighbour of a Christian girl arrested for alleged blasphemy, shows the locked house of a girl and vowed will never allow them to live in this neighborhood, in a suburb of Islamabad. AP Photo/BK Bangash.

Police put the girl in jail for 14 days on Thursday after neighbors said they believed a Christian girl had burned pages of a Quran, gathering outside her house in a poor outlying district of Islamabad, said police officer Zabi Ullah.

He suggested she was being held for her protection.

"About 500 to 600 people had gathered outside her house in Islamabad and they were very emotional, angry and they might have harmed her if we had not quickly reacted," Ullah said.

Almost everyone in the girl's neighborhood insisted she had burned the Quran's pages, even though police said they had found no evidence of it.

One police official, Qasim Niazi, said when the girl was brought to the police station, she had a shopping bag that contained various religious and Arabic-language papers that had been partly burned, but there was no Quran.

Some residents claimed they actually saw burnt pages of Quran — either at the local mosque or at the girl's house.

Cleric Hafiz Mohammad Zubair, third from right, meets with residents in a suburb of Islamabad at a local mosque regarding an alleged blasphemy by a Christian girl. AP photo/BK Bangash

Few people in Pakistan actually speak or read Arabic, so often assume that anything they see with Arabic script is believed to be from the Quran, sometimes the only Arabic-language book people have seen.

But one police officer familiar with the girl's case said the matter would likely be dropped once the investigation is completed and the atmosphere is defused, saying there was "nothing much to the case." He did not want to be identified due to the sensitivity of the case.

A spokesperson for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Farhatullah Babar, said the president has taken "serious note" of reports of the girl's arrest and has asked the Interior Ministry to look into the case.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the case "deeply disturbing".

"We urge the government of Pakistan to protect not just its religious minority citizens but also women and girls," she said.

The Associated Press is withholding the girl's name; the AP does not generally identify juveniles under 18 who are accused of crimes.

The case demonstrates the deep emotion that suspected blasphemy cases can evoke in a country where religion Many critics say the blasphemy laws are often abused.

"It has been exploited by individuals to settle personal scores, to grab land, to violate the rights of non-Muslims, to basically harass them," said the head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Zora Yusuf.

Those convicted of blasphemy can spend years in prison and often face mob justice by extremists when they finally do get out. What is Pakistan's blasphemy law?

In July, thousands of people dragged a man accused of desecrating the Quran from a police station in the central city of Bahawalpur, beat him to death and then set his body on fire.

Attempts to revoke or alter the blasphemy laws have been met with violent opposition. Last year, two prominent political figures who spoke out against the laws were killed in attacks that basically ended any attempts at reform.

The girl's jailing terrified her Christian neighbors, many of whom left their homes in fear after the incident. One resident said Muslims used to object to the noise when Christians sang songs during their services.

After the girl was accused he said senior members of the Muslim community pressured landlords to evict Christian tenants.

But Muslim residents insisted they treated their neighbors with respect, and said Christians needed to respect Islamic traditions and culture.

"Their priest should tell them that they should respect the call for prayer. They should respect the mosque and the Quran," said Haji Pervez, one of several Muslims gathered at the local mosque less than 100 yards (meters) from the grey concrete house where the Christian girl lived.

"This is what should have happened. We are standing in the house of God. This incident has happened and it is true. It was not good."

A combination photo of slain Pakistan's minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti (left) and Punjab province governer Salman Basheer (right), killed by extremists for opposing blasphemy law.

Pakistan came under criticism over violence in the name of blasphemy law, after Punjab province governor Salman Taseer and minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti were killed in broad daylight in 2011. Read on for a brief recap of the two killings.

Bodyguard shoots dead Punjab governor

The governor of Pakistan's Punjab province Salmaan Taseer was shot dead by a member of an elite security force in January 2011, as he was leaving his Islamabad home for his role in trying to get a reprieve for a woman given a life sentence under blasphemy laws, officials suspect. Read more

Salmaan Taseer's killer pleads guilty

police guard Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, 26, who gunned down Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer eight months ago for opposing the country's controversial blasphemy law, pleaded guilty in a Pakistani anti-terrorism court on. Read more

Taseer killer turns hero on Facebook

Hundreds of Facebook users welcomed the killing of liberal Pakistani politician Salman Taseer as a strike against reformers of the country's tight blasphemy laws. Nearly 2,000 Facebook users joined one group on the social networking site praising 26-year-old Mumtaz Qadri, and dozens of "fans" joined other pages set up in Qadri's honour in the hours after the shooting. Read more

Pakistan court stays hanging of governor's killer

A Pakistani court on Tuesday suspended a policeman's death sentence pending his appeal against conviction for killing a provincial governor who wanted to reform controversial blasphemy laws. Read more

Pak judge who awarded death to Taseer's killer transfered
A Pakistani high court has transferred an anti-terrorism court judge who recently awarded the death sentence to the self-confessed assassin of former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer for security reasons. Read more

Pak minister critical of blasphemy law assassinated

Two months after the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated by his bodyguard for his criticism of the country’s controversial blasphemy law, another vocal critic, minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti, was gunned down.

Read more

Slain Pak minister a martyr, says Archbishop
The Archbishop of Canterbury has called the assassinated Pakistan minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti a 'martyr' and asked the government of Pakistan to do more to protect its minorities. Writing in The Times on Monday, Dr Rowan Williams said the murder of Pakistan's only Christian cabinet minister, cannot be "managed or tolerated". Read more

Silenced by the forces of darkness
Pakistan's minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was shot in broad daylight in the capital, Islamabad, police said. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing, saying the minister had been “punished” for being a blasphemer. Read more

First Published: Aug 21, 2012 09:35 IST