(ADDING REPORTS OF NORWAY ESCAPE, CHANGING LEAD TO MAKE CLEAR DEATH PENALTY IS FOR ADULTS)
By BosNewsLife Asia Service
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– A mentally challenged Christian girl was hiding Saturday, October 6, amid fresh fears she will face years of imprisonment in Pakistan for “blasphemy against Islam,” after witnesses withdrew testimonies that exonerated her, trial observers said.
Khalid Shahzad, director of the Lahore city-based Dorothea Center for Special Children, told BosNewsLife he is concerned about the plight of 14-year-old Rimsha Masih.
“Three witnesses who testified that [Muslim leader] Hafiz Muhammed Khalid Chishti planted evidence to accuse Rimsha of blasphemy and rid the neighborhood of Christians have now withdrawn their testimony,” said Shahzad, who closely followed the case.
Chishti claimed the young Christian girl, who was detained on August 16, had burned pages with verses of the Koran, deemed a holy book by Muslims.
Last week BosNewsLife reported that an interim police report found the girl “innocent” of blasphemy based on witnesses testimonies.
Rimshah was released on bail of one million Pakistani rupees ($10,600) in September, but “if the case against Chishti is dismissed for lack of evidence, they might
very well move forward on the case against Rimsha,” explained Shahzad.
“A blasphemy case could result in Rimshah’s imprisonment for years,” he said.
Since she will be tried as juvenile, Masih faces a maximum sentence of seven years in prison, according to trial observers,
If she had been tried as an adult, she could have been jailed for life or even face the death penalty.
There were reports that she and her family had already fled to Norway. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and immigration authorities have not confirmed that information.
The girl has made clear she would prefer to remain in her home country, but Christian rights activists say that would be to dangerous. Even if the Rimsha girl will not face a trial, “she will never be able to return to her slum area in Pakistan,” added Farrukh H. Saif, executive director of Pakistan-based rights group World Vision In Progress.
Shahzad, whose Center includes a school for mentally challenged children and a food bank for some 200 Christian widows, is convinced of Rimsha’s innocence.
If “Chishti is not punished for falsely accusing a mentally handicapped and underage girl, this case will reinforce the growing climate of impunity with serious long-term consequences for the Christian community,” he warned.
Christians comprise less than five percent of Pakistan’s mostly Muslim population of 180 million people, according to several estimates.
Church groups say minority Christians have been increasingly targeted by militants and their supporters.
European Union officials have expressed concern about the situation and urged Pakistan to tackle the controversial blasphemy laws and ease tensions.