Pakistan quashes Christian girl 'blasphemy' case

A Pakistan court on Tuesday threw out all charges against a Christian girl accused of blasphemy for allegedly burning pages of the Koran in a case that drew international condemnation.

Rimsha Masih, who could have faced life in prison if convicted of the charges, spent three weeks on remand in jail after being arrested on August 16.

She was released on bail in September but she and her family have been in hiding under government protection, fearful for their lives.

Although the decision to drop the case was welcomed, it is unlikely to pave the way for imminent reform of Pakistan's blasphemy legislation, which activists say is too often used to settle personal disputes.

The prosecution said it would appeal the decision in the Supreme Court.

Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan, where 97 percent of the population are Muslims, and under the country's penal code insulting the Prophet Mohammed can be punished by death.

Even unproven allegations can provoke a violent public response.

In a 15-page judgement, Islamabad high court chief justice Iqbal Hameed ur Rahman threw out the case registered against Rimsha and urged Muslims to be "extraordinary careful" while levelling such allegations.

He said putting Rimsha on trial would have seen the courts "used as a tool for ulterior motive" and "to abuse the process of law".

Defence lawyer Tahir Naveed Chaudhry told AFP that the family was "delighted" the case had been dropped, but said they "still live in fear".

Rimsha and her family were moved to an undisclosed location after her release on bail on September 8.

An official medical report classified her as "uneducated" and 14 years old, but with a mental age younger than her years. Others have said she is as young as 11 and suffers from Down's Syndrome.

Paul Bhatti, the only Christian member of Pakistan's federal cabinet, welcomed the "historic" move, saying justice had been done.

"It will send out a positive image of Pakistan in the international community that there is justice for all and that society has risen up for justice and tolerance," he told AFP.

He paid tribute to Muslim clerics, members of the media and civil society for also playing a "positive role" in highlighting the injustice done to Rimsha and said it would deter others from levelling false accusations.

There is a separate case against cleric Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, who was granted bail last month after being accused of allegedly desecrating the Koran and tampering with the evidence against Rimsha.

On August 24, Chishti told AFP he thought Rimsha burned the pages as part of a Christian "conspiracy" and demanded action against what he called their "anti-Islam activities" in the impoverished Mehrabad neighbourhood of Islamabad.

Pakistani political analyst Hasan Askari said the courts had acted fairly, but that Rimsha's fate remains uncertain because of the poor track record on how society treats people accused of blasphemy.

Neither did he expect any immediate prospect of legal reforms.

"The government does not have the capacity to withstand the pressure of these religious groups especially at a time when elections are very close," he said.

In 2011, Pakistani politicians Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were assassinated for demanding that the blasphemy law be reformed.

And despite international outcry, Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, sentenced to death in November 2010 after women claimed she made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed remains in prison, pending an appeal process.

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