The case against a young Christian girl being held in a Pakistani jail for allegedly blaspheming Islam has been an outrage from the beginning. But with the arrest this week of her accuser – a Muslim cleric now facing accusations of planting evidence in the case to stir up religious sentiment against Christians – the matter has become a gross injustice that calls for her immediate release.
Rimsha Masih’s case initially appeared to be a sadly familiar one in Pakistan, where harsh anti-blasphemy laws are routinely used to persecute non-Muslims. But it stirred international outrage when it emerged the prisoner in this case is just 11 years old – although a medical report said she might be as old as 14 – and was born with some form of mental handicap, described in some reports as Down syndrome.
Ms. Masih is accused of burning pages of the Koran and stashing the ashes in her bag, but her alleged motive was never clear. She was jailed after an angry mob of several hundred people went to a local police station demanding her arrest.
Since then, the case has taken a highly unusual turn. A member of the local Muslim community went to police with evidence that he saw cleric Khalid Chisti stash pieces of the Koran in the girl’s bag to allegedly push Christians out of his neighbourhood. Mr. Chisti has now been arrested, and police have registered a blasphemy case against the cleric. Authorities say they are also contemplating other charges related to making false accusations.
Pakistani human rights activists say Mr. Chisti’s arrest is unprecedented and they hope it will stem a tide of false accusations of blasphemy that lead to long jail sentences and even the death penalty. Such a message is long overdue. But whatever the implications, Mr. Chisti’s arrest has yet to help Ms. Masih, who remains in jail until at least Friday, when a bail hearing is scheduled.
Even if she is released, Ms. Masih faces enormous danger in a country where people accused of blasphemy routinely face vigilante violence, even when they are found not guilty. Authorities must not only release Ms. Masih, but also offer her the fullest protection possible to ensure her safety afterward. She deserves no less after what she has endured.