ISLAMABAD // The arrest of a young Christian girl with Down syndrome accused of desecrating a Quran has triggered an outcry in Pakistan, with the president calling for a report on the arrest and rights activists urging the government to stop abusing blasphemy laws.
The girl was arrested on Thursday after hundreds of neighbours, angry over reports that she had burnt religious papers, gathered outside her house in a poor outlying district of the capital, Islamabad.
A policeman said the girl was taken to the police station, and that she is being held for 14 days while authorities investigate. Her name is Ramsha and her age was reported to be between 10 and 16.
"About 500-600 people had gathered outside her house in Islamabad, and they were very emotional, angry and they might have harmed her if we had not quickly reacted," a Pakistani police officer, Zabi Ullah, said yesterday.
Hammad Malik, 22, who lives next door to the girl, said he saw her burning pages with Quranic verses on them.
"I was sitting outside my house and a few minutes before iftar I saw her burning some booklets on the rubbish heap. I noticed there were some pages on which Quranic verses were printed," he said.
Mr Malik said he recovered most of the material - a beginners' Quran booklet and advice on how to pray with Quranic verses - but that a girl living in the neighbourhood recovered the rest from the rubbish heap.
"She picked up some pages and took them to the mosque. The prayer leader, on seeing the pages, called the police and I recorded my statement based on what I had seen," he said.
A statement on Sunday from president Asif Ali Zardari's office referred to reports that someone who came into the girl's house saw the pages, among papers collected from the rubbish, being burnt and accused the family.
It also said angry villagers had beaten the girl's mother and sister, and burnt the homes of some Christians.
"Blasphemy by anyone cannot be condoned but no one will be allowed to misuse blasphemy law for settling personal scores," Mr Zardari as said.
Taking "serious notice" of the incident, Mr Zardari ordered authorities to provide a report within 24 hours.
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that can lead to a variety of mental and physical disabilities.
"The girl is a scavenger and is mentally challenged. It is highly unlikely that she has committed desecration intentionally," Paul Bhatti, the minister for national harmony, said yesterday.
Mr Bhatti, a Christian, said 600 Christians living in the neighbourhood had fled after the incident. He said they were assured by the interior minister that they would return home and be given full protection, he said.
He said police had also taken Ramsha's family into custody, for their protection, and Christian leaders were contacting Muslim scholars to defuse the situation.
Rights activists denounced the arrest. "This arrest is against law, justice and humanity," Rashid Rehman, a senior member of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said yesterday. "It is very unfortunate."
Blasphemy is a highly sensitive issue in Pakistan and many people accused of blasphemy, or those who advocated a change in the law adopted in the 1980s by the then military ruler General Zia Al Haq, have been killed because of their views.
Last year, Mr Bhatti's brother, Shahbaz Bhatti, who was minister for minorities in Mr Zardari's government, was shot in Islamabad by militants linked to Al Qaeda and the Taliban for demanding a change in the legislation.
His murder came two months after Mr Zardari's close aide Salman Taseer, governor of central Punjab province, was shot dead by his guard in Islamabad for the same reason.
Under the blasphemy law, a person can be jailed for life or be sentenced to death if found guilty.
Last month, a man with mental disabilities accused of blasphemy was dragged out of a police station near Bahawalpur town in Punjab, beaten and burnt to death by a mob.
Rights activists have long called for a reform of the blasphemy law, which they say is used either to settle personal scores or to victimise religious minorities, but successive governments have been reluctant to do so for fear of a backlash.
"This law encourages people to take law into their own hand which is very dangerous. It promotes intolerance and bigotry in society," Mr Rehman said. "The government must amend it immediately."
Some have called for abolition of the blasphemy law altogether.
"This law should be repealed in totality because it has not served any purpose," Farzana Bari, director of gender studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, said.
"This law has been massively abused for political motives."
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press