ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Pakistani court adjourned on Thursday a bail hearing for a Christian girl accused of defaming Islam, prompting human rights activists to make fresh calls for her release in a case that has drawn renewed criticism of the country’s anti-blasphemy laws.
Religious and secular groups worldwide have protested over the arrest this month of Rimsha Masih, accused by Muslim neighbors of burning Islamic religious texts.
“This will go on and on and this little minor girl will rot in jail,” said human rights activist Tahira Abdullah outside an Islamabad court. “We want her out of jail. We want her under protection.”
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.
Human rights groups say the law dangerously discriminates against the Muslim country’s tiny minority groups.
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 about Masih’s age and her mental state. Some media have said she is 11 and suffers from Down’s Syndrome.
A hospital said in a report she was about 14 but had the mental capacities of someone below that age and was uneducated.
Rao Abdur Raheem, a lawyer representing the accuser in the case, said the medical report was conducted without a court order, prompting the bail hearing to be postponed until September 1.
“She could get 110 percent punishment,” he told Reuters.
Masih’s arrest triggered an exodus of several hundred Christians from her poor village on the edge of the capital, Islamabad, after mosques reported over their loudspeakers what the girl was alleged to have done.
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.
“We are just praying for her and we hope that she will be released soon,” said Christian activist Xavier William.
In January of 2011, Punjab province Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by his own bodyguard because the governor had called for the reform of the anti-blasphemy law.
He made a prison visit to Asia Bibi - a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in a case stemming from a village dispute - and had worked for the reform of the law.
Lawyers who once protested in support of democracy showered bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri with rose petals.
Two months after Taseer’s murder, Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was murdered by the Taliban for demanding changes to the blasphemy law.
Lawyer Raheem said he did not want to see Masih’s case turned into another one focusing on changing the law, and he warned that to do so could again incite a violent reaction.
“There are many Mumtaz Qadris in this country and we will support them,” the lawyer said, referring to Governor Taseer’s killer.
(This version of the story has been corrected to fix typo in age in paragraph 8)
Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Robert Birsel