A Pakistani teenager accused of blasphemy for allegedly burning pages from a Quran faces charges in juvenile court even as the imam suspected of staging the offense is released from jail.
A report from Pakistan said Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chisti, a cleric who brought the claim against the 14-year-old girl, has been released from jail.
But lawyers say the girl, Rimsha Masih, and her family will remain in Pakistan.
Masih was arrested in August on blasphemy charges and released from an adult jail in September. But now she is expected to appear in juvenile court for the same charges Oct. 17.
The new hearing is expected to present difficulties for Masih’s attorneys, because, as Pakistan’s Herald-Tribune reports, three of the four witnesses on behalf of the girl have turned hostile and have recanted their testimony.
Three of the men now say they were tortured into a confession and that the burned pages were not planted in Masih’s bag by the local imam.
Open Doors Advocacy Director Lindsay Vessey says reports of the men changing their story are accurate. For Vessey, the reason they changed their story is important.
She points to Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law.
“The blasphemy laws are regularly abused in Pakistan, drawing much condemnation from the international community,” Vessey said. “At the same time, they have majority support within the country of Pakistan.”
Vessey added that supporting change to the blasphemy laws has been deadly in the past.
“Any effort to reform them results in incredible pressure from Islamists within the country, as seen by the murders of Shabaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer,” Vessey said.
Vessey believes it’s very likely that the only reason Masih hasn’t been tried for blasphemy is the international attention the case has received.
“When Rimsha was charged and imprisoned, it drew a lot of international attention and outrage over the laws. So it’s possible that the witnesses coming forward to accuse the cleric were staged and planned to withdraw testimony all along,” Vessey said.
Rimsha may still come out ahead in the ordeal.
“The result is that Rimsha likely won’t be found guilty, and the government can deflect attention from the broader issue of reforming blasphemy laws to dealing with this one imam who abused them,” Vessey said.
“This is pure speculation, but one has to wonder why four witnesses came forward awhile after Rimsha was imprisoned, only to withdraw their statements later,” Vessey said.
Another possibility, she said, is that witnesses have been pressured into retracting their statements.
International Christian Concern’s Pakistan analyst Aidan Clay said that the witnesses were most likely coerced from both directions.
“While reports say that the witnesses were coerced by police to testify against the cleric, my speculation is that the witnesses felt pressured by their community and the cleric to retract their statements,” Clay said.
To many in Masih’s neighborhood, he said, the young girl and anyone who supported her are all equally guilty.
“They were seen as defending the child and therefore being participants in her blasphemous actions. Like Rimsha, they now also face the threat of being killed,” Clay said.
Clay said that even though the case has faded from the headlines, the sense of outrage in Masih’s neighborhood has not subsided.
“There were many angry Muslims in the neighborhood when the cleric was arrested. That anger has not dissipated, and the witnesses likely fear for their lives. It is fear that probably persuaded the witnesses to recant their earlier statements,” Clay said.
He added that people accused of blasphemy in Pakistan aren’t safe, even if they are acquitted in court.
Citing the advocacy group Human Rights First, he said 46 people charged for blasphemy in the past 25 years have been killed by mob justice while awaiting trial or after having been acquitted.
The Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies presented similar findings, he said, reporting that 52 people have been killed by vigilantes since 1990 after being implicated in blasphemy cases..
“This goes to show that whether a suspected offender is officially convicted in a Pakistani court, merely accused of blasphemy by a neighbor, or is a perceived accomplice of an accused blasphemer, the offense may still merit a death sentence, whether that be in court or by a disgruntled neighbor,” Clay said.
WND reported in July 2010 that two Christian men accused of blasphemy were found innocent but were killed by a mob anyway. The Christians were shot and killed on their way out of a courthouse after being accused by Pakistani Muslims of blasphemy because, according to an analyst, innocence in such a situation “doesn’t matter.”
“It’s not rational,” Jonathan Racho of International Christian Concern told WND. “It’s not something you can justify with reasoning. In the minds of radicals, if a Christian is accused of blasphemy, even if the Christian has not done it, and even if the police have proved that the person hasn’t done it, it doesn’t matter for them.”