Surprising twist in Pakistani Christian child's blasphemy case

A few weeks ago, we looked at coverage of the arrest of an 11-year-old Christian girl in Pakistan on blasphemy charges. She'd been accused of burning pages of the Quran. We had discussed the slight American coverage of the story, compared to interest in English-language press elsewhere. We also noted that there was a failure to talk to people who supported the blasphemy charge against the child. The Associated Press has an update to the story:

A Muslim cleric is accused of stashing pages of a Quran in a Christian girl’s bag to make it seem like she burned the Islamic holy book, a surprising twist in a case that caused an international outcry over the country’s strict blasphemy laws.

Pakistani police arrested Khalid Chishti late Saturday after a member of the cleric’s mosque accused the imam of planting evidence as a way to push the Christians out of the neighborhood. Chishti denied the charges Sunday while being led to court in shackles, wearing a white blindfold.

Chishti is quoted as saying the charges were fabricated. We're told that the imam's arrest means the girl might be released. She currently faces a life sentence. Not mentioned in the story is that even if she's released, she risks death by mob, a not uncommon penalty for people released from jail after blasphemy charges.

A Christian woman from the girls' neighborhood is quoted and we learn more about the charges against Chishti:

Police said Chishti planted pages of a Quran in a shopping bag containing burned papers and ash that had been carried by the Christian girl. The bag was then submitted as evidence to the police.

A member of his mosque came forward Saturday — more than two weeks after the girl’s arrest — and accused the imam of planting the evidence, said the investigating officer, Munir Jaffery.

The case has shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the punishments for violating Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and caused an uproar in the country, largely because of the girl’s age and questions about her mental capacity.

The big "so what" about this case is handled well by the Associated Press. Human rights observers from within and outside Pakistan have been sounding the alarm about the country's blasphemy laws, but people who bring blasphemy charges are rarely investigated, much less arrested for abusing the law. The article also suggests a reason for why investigation of those accusing others of blasphemy might not happen much:

Ali Dayan Hasan, head of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, said the decision to act against the cleric was “unprecedented.”

“What it indicates is a genuine attempt at investigation rather than blaming the victim, which is what normally happens in blasphemy cases,” said Hasan. “They are actually taking a look at incitement to violence and false allegations. It is a welcome and positive development.”

Few leaders have been willing to tackle the contentious issue after two prominent politicians who criticized the law were murdered last year. One was shot by his own bodyguard, who then attracted adoring crowds.

The article also quotes local Muslims who say that the charges against their religious leader were trumped up by a problem-causing fellow member, that there are no problems with the blasphemy laws and if anything, there hasn't been enough punishment for blasphemy. These local residents, we're told, also believe the girl to be guilty. For that reason, it would have been nice to explore, even briefly, what her release might mean in terms of her safety. Still, a good story that helps explain some of the contours for this tricky situation. And I'm glad to see that Muslims who support the blasphemy laws and their execution were quoted in the piece.

Another example of quoting Muslims who support the laws comes from Reuters, which gave them a voice right at the top of the story:

Some Muslim neighbours insist [the girl] should still be punished, and said the detained imam was a victim.

Under Muslim Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law, the mere allegation of causing offence to Islam can mean death. Those accused are sometimes killed by members of the public even if they are found innocent by the courts.

"Pour petrol and burn these Christians," said Iqbal Bibi, 74, defending the imam on the steps of the mosque where he preaches in Masih's impoverished village of Mehr Jaffer.

"The cleric of the mosque has been oppressed. He is not at fault. He is innocent."

The lengthy Reuters report includes some good historical context about how blasphemy is treated officially and extra-judicially in Pakistan, how that is particularly bad news for Christians, and how people are responding to the present situation in different ways.

I'd still like more information from this subset of Muslims who seek capital punishment for the child on particularly why they believe that to be just or why Christians should be killed, but this is a good start and helps outsiders get a beginning look at the troubles facing this region in Pakistan.

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