While international humanitarian agencies continued to express their outrage on Tuesday, a terrified 11-year-old Christian girl, suffering from Downs Syndrome, spent her fifth night alone in a Pakistani jail on charges of blasphemy. The mentally disabled youngster has been charged under Pakistan’s notorious Section 295 B, which calls for the death penalty for anyone who is found guilty of insulting Islam’s Prophet or the Qur’an.
The incident, began on August 16 when 11-year-old Rimsha Masih, who lives in the rural area of Mehrabadi near Islamabad, was playing outside of her family’s home. Muslim residents of the area claim Rimsha burned pages of the Noorani Qaida, a booklet used to learn the basics of the Holy Qur’ an, placed the burnt pages in a plastic bag, and threw them in the trash. The enraged neighbors intervened, and, after beating the 11-year-old and her mother, they dragged Rimsha to the police station.
At first, the police were reluctant to charge a mentally handicapped child as a legally competent adult. However, when word leaked out that she might not be arrested, an angry crowd began to surround the police station. The police, fearing a riot, filed blasphemy charges and detained the youngster. The police also attempted to diffuse criticism of the arrest by originally claiming Rimsha was 16-years-old and had no disabilities.
After the arrest, the Muslim mob returned to Mehrabadi where they set up roadblocks of burning tires at all the entrances to the village in preparation for an attack on local Christian families. Agitators spent the day using loudspeakers to work up the crowd by making inflammatory accusations against the fearful Christian community. The attack was expected to occur after Friday prayers at the local Mosque, but, at the last moment, negotiations with Muslim clerics were successful and the attacks were called off. However, Christian villagers were warned that the truce was only for the time being, and peace would depend on Rimsha being punished for her crimes.
As a result of Rimsha’s arrest and the ensuing disturbances, as many as 800 Christians from the Mehrabadi area have been forced to flee. Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, a senior official of All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, described the villager’s exodus, saying, “These Christians had sought shelter with their relatives in other parts of the city, but now they are gradually returning to Mehrabad.”
Attempts to aid Rimsha have been largely unsuccessful. Representatives of the World Vision in Progress Foundation attempted to visit the child and met with a total lack of co-operation as well as outright hostility. One of their members reports being sternly lectured by a police official about Rimsha’s crimes against Islam. The angry officer then got on his cell phone, and, within minutes, carloads of Muslim youths showed up at the police station. The Muslim youths were exceedingly hostile and tried to provoke a fight, forcing Rimsha’s concerned visitors to get into a waiting car,and depart quickly.
Rimsha last appeared in court on Friday when she was remanded for an additional 14 days. She is expected to appear before a judge by the end of the month. Meanwhile, one very frightened 11-year-old girl suffering from Downs Syndrome sits in a dark jail cell, isolated from her family and fearing for her very life.
Rimsha’s case is by no means unique or unusual. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have led to decades of misery for religious minorities. Several prominent political leaders, including Salman Taseer (the former governor of Punjab) and Shahbaz Bhatti (the Federal Minister for Minorities), have been assassinated because they called for the repeal of the laws.
The blasphemy laws have been used for every imaginable reason, from silencing government critics to closing down television stations and newspapers. On a personal level, blasphemy laws are often used to settle private disagreements and business disputes. Christians and other non-Muslims live with the constant fear that if they anger any Muslim, they will be accused of blasphemy.
The situation for young Rimsha Masih is grim. Pakistan has a long established policy of ignoring any, and all, international pressure, so there is virtually nothing anyone can do to help her. Just like the Christian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, who awaits execution in Iran for refusing to convert to Islam, Rimsha is totally at the mercy of the government and a legal system based on Sharia. We can only hope that sanity will prevail and some high ranking official will find it in his heart to let this poor young girl return unharmed to her family.