Pakistani girl accused of blasphemy traumatised: activist

ISLAMABAD Thu Aug 23, 2012 10:38am EDT

1 of 3. Children sit in front of the locked family house of Rimsha Masih, a Pakistani Christian girl accused of blasphemy, on the outskirts of Islamabad August 23, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Faisal Mahmood

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Pakistani Christian girl detained on accusations of defaming Islam was too frightened to speak in a prison where she is being held in solitary confinement for her safety, an activist who said he visited her said on Thursday.

Religious and secular groups worldwide have protested over the arrest last week of Rimsha Masih, accused by Muslim neighbors of burning Islamic religious texts.

The case has put another spotlight on Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law, which rights groups say dangerously discriminates against the conservative Muslim country's tiny minority groups.

Christian activist Xavier William said he visited Masih at a police station where she was first held, and then this week in prison.

"She was frightened and traumatised," William told Reuters.

"She was assaulted and in very bad shape. She had bruises on her face and on her hands," he added, referring to an attack by a mob in her village on the edge of Islamabad after she was accused of blasphemy.

Under the blasphemy law, anyone who speaks ill of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad commits a crime and faces the death penalty, but activists say vague terminology has led to its misuse.

Convictions are common, although the death sentence has never been carried out. Most convictions are thrown out on appeal, but mobs have killed many people accused of blasphemy.

There have been conflicting reports on Masih's age and her mental state. Some media have said she is 11 and suffers from Down's Syndrome. Masih's lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, said her family had informed him she was mentally ill.

One police official said she was 16 and mentally sound. William said he could not confirm she had a mental illness. Masih's family told William she was 14, he said.

CHRISTIANS FLEE GIRL'S VILLAGE

Masih's arrest triggered an exodus of several hundred Christians from her poor village after mosques reported over their loudspeakers what the girl was alleged to have done. Emotions were running high.

A neighbor named Tasleem said her daughter saw Masih throwing away trash that included the burned religious material.

"If Christians burn our Koran, we will burn them," she told Reuters.

Other Muslims were more conciliatory.

"We protected the rest of the Christians," said Masih's landlord, Malik Amjad Mohammad. "People here support them."

Christians, who make up four percent of Pakistan's population of 180 million, have been especially concerned about the blasphemy law, saying it offers them no protection.

Convictions hinge on witness testimony and are often linked to vendettas, they complain.

In 2009, 40 houses and a church were set ablaze by a mob of 1,000 Muslims in the town of Gojra, in Punjab province. At least seven Christians were burned to death. The attacks were triggered by reports of the desecration of the Koran.

Two Christian brothers accused of writing a blasphemous letter against the Prophet Mohammad were gunned down outside a court in the eastern city of Faisalabad in July of 2010.

President Asif Ali Zardari has told officials to produce a report on the girl's arrest, which has brought protests from Amnesty International, British-based Christian group Barnabas Fund, and others.

Masih is due to appear in court in the next 10 days. She could be formally charged with blasphemy. She is being held in solitary confinement for her safety, said William.

"She would not make eye contact. She did not say anything. She did not answer back," he said.

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Ron Popeski and Robert Birsel)

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