By BosNewsLife Asia Service
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– A Pakistani court on Tuesday, November 20, cleared a mentally challenged Christian girl of “blasphemy against Islam” charges, which can carry the death penalty.
The high court in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad found the accusations against teenager Rimsha Masih “legally unsound” in a case that drew worldwide attention.
Masih, who is believed to be 14 but mentally much younger, always denied the charges.
In a 15-page judgement, Islamabad high court chief justice Iqbal Hameed ur Rahman urged Muslims to be “extraordinary careful” while making such allegations.
He said putting Rimsha on trial would have seen the courts “used as a tool for ulterior motive” and “to abuse the process of law” and the country’s strict blasphemy legislation.
“She is a free woman, like any ordinary citizen,” confirmed Abdul Hameed Rana, one of Rimsha’s lawyers.
Her ordeal began in August when she was detained in a suburb of Islamabad after a neighbor accused her of burning pages with verses from the Koran, viewed as a holy book by Muslims.
After spending over three weeks in a prison with adults, she was released on bail in September and moved with her family to an undisclosed location.
Police investigators later found the girl “innocent” of “blasphemy”, referring to witnesses testimonies, according to a report seen by BosNewsLife.
The witnesses testified that detained Muslim prayer leader Hafiz Muhammed Khalid Chishti planted evidence to accuse Rimsha of blasphemy and rid the neighborhood of Christians.
He has denied the charges and witnesses later withdrew their testimonies saying they were made under “duress.”
Tuesday’s court ruling, however, closed a dark chapter in Pakistan, suggested Paul Bhatti, the only Christian minister in Pakistan’s federal cabinet.
“This is a historic move, justice has been done,” he told reporters.
“It will send out a positive image of Pakistan in the international community that there is justice for all and that society has risen up for justice and tolerance,” Bhatti added.
He thanked international media and Muslim clerics for also playing a “positive role” in highlighting “the injustice done to Rimsha” and added that it would deter others from leveling false accusations.
However rights activists remain worried about Rimsha’s immediate future in a nation where several Christians and others accused of blasphemy have been killed, even after they were acquitted.
The case has underscored international concerns about Pakistan’s blasphemy legislation, which is seen as discriminatory toward religious minorities in this heavily Muslim nation of some 190 million people.
Islamic militants have killed several politicians trying to challenge the blasphemy rules, under which people can be sentenced to death, or at least receive life imprisonment, for insulting Islam or its prophet.
Last year Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was shot dead by one of his bodyguards after publicly calling for changes to the blasphemy legislation.
In March 2011, as many as four gunmen ambushed and killed Shahbaz Bhatti, the 42-year-old minister for minorities’ affairs and himself a Christian.
Pakistan’s Taliban group claimed responsibility for killing Bhatti in leaflets found at the scene, saying it was revenge for heading a government-appointed committee to review the blasphemy law, news reports said.
Controversy over the law escalated in November 2010 when a court used it to sentence to death a Christian mother of five, after women claimed she made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed.
Taseer had visited Bibi in jail and persuaded President Asif Ali Zardari to review her case and consider ordering clemency for her.
On Tuesday, November 20, she was still awaiting the outcome of her appeal, behind bars.
Tuesday’s news of the release of the 14-year-old Christian Rimsha was also overshadowed by reports that a new British-based Islamist group plans to meet in Islamabad to issue a religious decree against a Pakistani schoolgirl shot by the Taliban, for “supporting occupying” U.S. forces.
The move against Malala Yousufzai, 15, was expected to provoke outrage: After her shooting in October, she became an international icon and world leaders pledged to support her campaign for girls’ education.
“There will be a fatwa issued regarding Malala Yousufzai taking into account the full story of her injury including her public statements in support of the occupying U.S. army in the region and mocking of key symbols of Islam such as hijab and jihad,” Reuters news agency quoted Abu Baraa, a senior member of Shariah4Pakistan, as saying.
In Britain, the girls supporters have urged the government to nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize.
(With reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos and reporters from the region).