09/03/2012, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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"We are optimistic," says Paul Bhatti as Rimsha Masih's bail hearing postponed to Friday

Today's hearing was cancelled because of a lawyers' strike in Punjab. Family problems with the presiding judge lead to two more days of postponement. Procedures are painful but we "are certain of her release." Bhatti praises the arrest of the imam who made the accusations against the girl. His "arrest will be [a] deterrent," Pakistan Human Rights Watch said.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) - "The court in Islamabad put off the hearing to determine Rimsha Masih's release to Friday, because lawyers are on strike in Punjab, and the presiding judge handling the case will not be present," Paul Bhatti said. The special national harmony advisor to the prime minister spoke to AsiaNews about the case of the girl arrested for blasphemy. In meantime, the case took an unexpected turn as the imam who had accused the girl is now charged with fabricating the evidence in order to expel Christians from his area.

The court, which was supposed to sit today to evaluate a bail application for Rimsha, was unable to hear the case because of a lawyers' strike. In addition, family problems have forced the presiding judge to postpone the hearing "for a couple of days," Bhatti explained. "Otherwise, the ruling would have been made tomorrow or Wednesday." Still, "We are optimistic and certain of her release," he added. "Unfortunately, we must follow the painful procedures and timing of the law."

Last Friday, the court in Islamabad extended Rimsha Masih's arrest. She is the mentally challenged Christian girl accused of blasphemy for insulting pages with Qur'anic verses. Under the Pakistan Penal Code, the maximum sentence in her case is life in prison.

She could also become the victim of Taliban extremism. In several cases, people accused of blasphemy were the victims of extrajudicial killings. Relatives and people who belong to the victim's group have also been attacked.

Next Friday, the court will rule on a request by the girl's lawyers for her release on bail. Despite a lawyers' strike, the latter were in court today.

A medical commission established by the court determined that the girl was under the age of 14 and that she had a mental age lower than her actual age. It did not however indicate her type of disability. Islamists have challenged the medical report, demanding instead she be tried and punished.

Over the weekend, the case had an unexpected twist. Police arrested Khalid Jadoon Chishti, the imam who had filed a complaint against the Christian girl for allegedly burning pages with verses from the Qur'an. Last Friday, a courageous and conscientious witness, Hafiz Zubair, told prosecutors that Chishti was lying.

The religious leader deliberately and falsely accused Rimsha Masih of breaking the 'black law' with fabricated evidence. On Saturday, he was arrested on blasphemy charges, like the girl, for desecrating the Qur'an, and could get life in prison. He is accused of adding pages from the Holy book to the pages the girl had burnt.

Speaking to AsiaNews, Paul Bhatti said, "The imam's arrest is a positive development, [. . . ] a victory for the Pakistani government and police who were able to enforce justice and find the culprit."

"It is a victory and a positive development for two reasons," the Catholic minister said. "The first is about the law because it shows that blasphemy rules can be correctly enforced against people who break them. Secondly, the imam should be prosecuted and given the same punishment," life in prison if found guilty.

A final thought goes to Rimsha Masih's family, which is under the protection of the national harmony advisor. "The girl's parents are doing OK," Paul Bhatti said. "Still, with tensions running high over their daughter's fate, they still must remain in hiding because of possible retaliation. Emotionally, their state of mind runs from fear to disappointment over going home."

"Their only hope is to find a place far away and safe," he added. "Their life is upside down and they will have to start from zero."

This is the fate of all innocent victims of the blasphemy law and religious intolerance. Rimsha Masih's case and the arrest of the imam who accused her are however a turning point.

On Twitter, Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan Director at Human Rights Watch, wrote that the "Action against [the] cleric falsely accusing minor girl in Pakistan of blasphemy [is] 'unprecedented' and 'welcome.' Chishti's arrest will be [a] deterrent to frivolous blasphemy charges and incitement to violence."

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