The case against Rimsha Masih, the teenage Pakistani Christian girl, has today been dropped by the court in the Pakistani capital Islamabad.
Rimsha, who was arrested in August on suspicion of desecrating Islamic texts, was originally charged in an adult court with blasphemy; there the penalty was life imprisonment. The girl’s case was subsequently transferred to the juvenile court after her age was certified, and medical evidence emerged that her mental capacity was impaired. Since then her case has gone through several dramatic twists and turns, and has received international media attention. During this time, she spent three weeks in protective custody in a maximum security prison.
Rimsha’s lawyer said today her case had been a misuse of law. Akmal Bhatti said: “The court has quashed the case, declaring Rimsha innocent.”
Khalid Jadoon, imam of a mosque, close to Rimsha’s former family home in the Mehrabad sector of Islamabad, now faces a charge of making a false accusation.
So far, there’s been no response from Rimsha or her family, who remain in hiding at an undisclosed location. Rimsha’s attorneys say she and her family never can return to their home. Earlier reports that the family had been secreted away to Norway were denied by the Norwegian Embassy in Pakistan and Pakistan’s Minister of National Harmony, Paul Bhatti, who told us last month “Mizrek Masih’s family is in Pakistan and in our protection.”
“This is the first case of its kind when a person charged under the strict blasphemy laws is exonerated from the accusation,” said Naveed Chaudry, another of Rimsha’s lawyers. “This case has also brought for the first time a debate on how these laws are misused to target innocent people.”
Rimsha’s case has taken several dramatic turns after her arrest on Aug. 16th.
On Aug. 28 a medical report determined the girl to be 14 years old. Her attorneys considered the medical opinion to be powerful evidence that would persuade the court to shift Rimsha’s case to the juvenile courts, where potential penalties are less severe.
Instead, the court delayed a decision and agreed to a new medical exam at the insistence of the lawyer representing Rimsha’s accuser. The lawyer hinted strongly that there would be violence if the girl were released on bail and her case transferred out of the adult court system. The most dramatic development occurred on Sept. 2 when police, acting on information provided by members of a local mosque, arrested a local Muslim cleric, Khalid Jadoon, on suspicion of supplying Rimsha with the torn Quranic pages she was later accused of desecrating herself. (Rimsha’s original accuser was her neighbour Malik Ammad). The new twist forced yet another delay in a determination whether Rimsha would be released on bail.
On Sept. 23, sub-Inspector Munir Jaffri, the investigation officer in the blasphemy case, asked the court to clear Rimsha of the charge against her and instead charge Khalid Jadoon.
The court then ordered that Rimsha be released into protective custody, on bail security of approximately $10,500. It’s extremely rare that bail is granted in a blasphemy case, partly for the defendant’s own safety, but Masih’s lawyers pleaded that she was a juvenile. A day later Rimsha was airlifted from Adiala jail in Rawalpindi to an undisclosed location.
However, even then the twists and turns were not over. Three witnesses whose original testimony provided police with the evidence to arrest the imam Jadoon then recanted at an Oct. 1 court hearing. The witnesses, Khurram Shahzad, Hafiz Mohammad Owais and a man identified by the name Danish, told the judge the police had tortured them into recording their incriminating statements.
Rimsha’s arrest had prompted widespread international condemnation of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari ordered an investigation, and said the law must not be used to settle personal scores. Prominent Muslim clerics in Pakistan urged the courts not to rush to judgment under public pressure, though the blasphemy law is widely popular among many ordinary Pakistanis.
Other Christians who fled Islamabad’s Meherabadi neighborhood to avoid Muslim anger over Rimsha’s alleged offense have tried to return home.
In the meantime, Rimsha Masih’s case has triggered a debate on how Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws are being used to settle personal scores and vendettas. They have been especially in the spotlight since a Christian mother-of-five, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death in November 2010 for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. She remains in prison.
In Jan 2011, the powerful Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was killed by his own bodyguard for publicly urging reform of the blasphemy laws. His assassination divided Pakistani opinion, with many hailing the bodyguard as a hero for what he’d done.