By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
ISLAMABAD/OSLO (BosNewsLife)– A mentally challenged Christian girl who was detained in Pakistan on charges of ‘blasphemy against Islam’ has fled to Norway with family members, a Christian official involved in the operation confirmed Monday, October 8.
Rimsha Masih, 14, arrived in the Scandinavian nation with support from the Norwegian government, said Farrukh H. Saif, executive director of the Pakistan-based Christian aid and advocacy group World Vision In Progress (WVIP).
“She is accompanied by her parents, two sisters and one brother,” Saif explained in an interview with BosNewsLife. “European Pakistani Christians arranged her asylum”, he added.
Norway’s Foreign Ministry and immigration authorities declined to comment, but Pakistan’s prosecution office also said she had left for Norway.
Rimsha Masih was jailed August 17 in a prison near Islamabad after allegedly burning pages with verses of the Koran, viewed as holy book by Muslims.
Her detention at Adiala Jail sparked an international outcry because of her age and a medical report confirming that she was mentally handicapped.
Amid mounting pressure, Rimsha was eventually flown to safety on September 8 after an Islamabad court set the bail of one million Pakistani rupees ($10,600), Farrukh said.
“She was held at the Norwegian embassy as Norway was among six countries that wanted to help her and the family,” he added.
Aid groups in the United States, Italy and Canada also offered the teen and her family a home outside Pakistan, a family representative said.
Eventually “some 20 days ago” she and her family were secretly flown to Norway, Saif explained.
Pakistani authorities allowed the flight after a Muslim leader who accused the girl of burning pages of Koran verses, was himself detained on charges of blasphemy.
Imam Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chisht allegedly stashed Koranic papers in the girl‘s bag to ensure her conviction and push out Christians from the area, charges he strongly denied.
Three witnesses who initially confirmed Chisht’s actions later withdrew their statements saying they were recorded under police pressure.
Masih and Christians supporting her have denied she knowingly burned the Koranic verses.
Rimsha said in published remarks last month that she had not defiled the Koran. She said she was happy to be with her family, but feared for her life. “I’m scared. I’m afraid of anyone who might kill us.”
As a juvenile, Masih could face a maximum sentence of seven years in prison under controversial blasphemy legislation in this heavily Islamic nation, according to trial observers.
If she had been tried as an adult, she could have faced life imprisonment or the death penalty.
“But no harm can be done to the girl now as she is safe in Norway,” Said said, without revealing the city or town, amid security concerns.
Yet, Rimsha has made clear she would prefer to stay in her home country though she grew up in a slum area of Islamabad.
Saif said a return seems to dangerous. Thousands of Christians were initially forced to flee the colony of Meherabadi where the girl grew up and several houses were burned and a church was destroyed by Muslim mobs angry over the alleged blasphemy, he told BosNewsLife.
With the girl now in Norway, Saif said there was concern for family members still staying behind in Pakistan, adding that WVIP cares for a paternal uncle of the girl.
The girl’s case has renewed calls to overturn the blasphemy legislation. There have been 1,400 blasphemy cases since the laws were first enacted in 1986, according to the Human Rights Watch group.
Rights activists say there are over 15 cases of people on death row for blasphemy in Pakistan, and 52 people are known to have died while facing trial.
The case against Rimsha has also underscored concerns over the treatment of children by Pakistan’s judicial system. Kids as young as seven can spend years behind bars – before the courts have even decided if they are innocent or guilty, according to observers familiar with the case.
“We estimate that there are as many as 4,500 juveniles in Pakistani prisons,” said Ansar Burney Trust, an advocacy group supporting various projects in Pakistan and abroad.