Girl with Down syndrome granted bail in blasphemy case

.- A judge granted bail on Friday, Sept. 7 to a 14-year-old Christian girl with Down syndrome who has been held on suspicion of burning pages of the Quran.

“Although this is a small step towards justice, she will still have to undergo a full trial unless granted asylum in a Western nation,” Wilson Chowdhry of the British Pakistani Christian Association said in a Sept. 7 e-mail.

Masih, who has Down syndrome, was arrested Aug. 16 and has been held at a high-security prison in Rawalpindi.

Her bail has been set at 1,000,000 rupees, or about $10,500. Bail is not normally available to those held under the blasphemy laws, but the evidence against her was deemed inadequate to continue to hold a minor with Down syndrome.

If her bail is met, she may be united with her family, which has been taken into protective custody. Many Christians have fled the poor neighborhood where the Masih family lived, fearing mob violence.

Even if those accused under the country’s harsh blasphemy laws are acquitted in court, it can be difficult for authorities to prevent the killing of those who are accused. In 2011, two Pakistani politicians -- Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim, and Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic -- were assassinated for opposing the blasphemy laws under which Masih is being held.

“Here safety is paramount and security at today's court hearing was significant, however the killing of Governor Taseer illustrates that extra-judicial killings are hard to prevent,” Chowdhry stated.

Masih's case has garnered attention from Western governments and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. It has also sparked discussion of the blasphemy laws and human rights within Pakistan itself.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often used to settle scores or to persecute minorities. Christians make up a mere two to four percent of the country’s population.

On Sept. 2 an imam from Masih's neighborhood, Khalid Chishti, was arrested on suspicion of having planted pages of the Quran among burnt pages in a bag she was carrying. Chishti will also face charges under the blasphemy laws.

Chisti allegedly said to his companions, “You know this is the only way to expel the Christians from this area.” Several persons, including his own deputy, have testified to his action of planting the Quran pages in Masih's bag.

“It’s a welcome decision, they were expecting this and they were praying for this, but it comes not as a favorable gesture on the part of the court, it doesn’t involve that sympathy that common people share; a child being accused and then being abused and kept in jail,” said Peter Jacob, of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, an advocacy organization established by the Pakistani bishops' conference.

Tags: Persecuted Christians, Blasphemy Laws

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