ISLAMABAD // A Christian girl accused of burning pages of the Quran became yesterday the first person in Pakistan to be granted bail in a blasphemy case.
Judge Muhammad Azam Khan ordered that Rimsha Masih could be released once her lawyers submitted a guarantee that the family would deposit surety bonds to the value of one million rupees (Dh38,000).
The guarantee was likely to be submitted today, according to one of Rimsha's representatives.
"It's victory for justice and righteousness," said Mohammad Anwar-ul-Haq, a lawyer for Rimsha.
The girl was arrested in an Islamabad suburb three weeks ago after an angry mob rallied outside a police station and forced police to arrest her on accusations that she had burnt Quranic pages. She is believed to be about 14, but a medical report says her mental age was that of a child much younger. Others have said she is as young as 11 and has Down syndrome.
Police charged Rimsha with blasphemy, which carries a sentence of life in prison for burning the Quran and the death penalty for insulting Islam or the Prophet Mohammed. Her lawyers have denied charges.
Police last week arrested Khalid Jadoon, the imam of the local mosque who accused Rimsha of burning pages of the Quran. Two of Mr Jadoon's followers, Mohammad Zubair and Khurram Shehzad, accused him of framing the child by stashing pages of Quran in her bag to show that she had burnt them. Police alleged that Mr Jadoon had done so because he wanted to drive Christians out of the neighbourhood and the imam could yet face blasphemy charges.
The case against the girl caused an international uproar after rights groups were made aware of her age and affliction. The case also renewed calls for changes in the country's blasphemy legislation.
Rights groups hailed yesterday's judgement.
"This child should not have been behind bars at all. All charges against her should be dropped," said Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch.
"Pakistan's criminal justice system should instead concentrate on holding her accuser accountable for inciting violence against the child and members of the local Christian community," the rights activist said.
About a dozen students from a special child-education centre from the nearby town of Jhelum yesterday rallied outside the court, holding banners in support of Rimsha.
Pakistan has never executed a convict under the blasphemy law. Rashid Rehman, a senior official of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said that although figures were unavailable, it was not uncommon for mobs to take the law into their own hands and kill people accused of blasphemy. Last month, a mentally challenged man accused of blasphemy was dragged out of a police station near Bahawalpur in Punjab, beaten and burnt to death by a mob.
Raja Akram, a lawyer for Rimsha, said he feared she would be in danger once she was released.
"We will talk to authorities to provide her security," he said.
Rimsha is being held in the high-security Adiala prison in Rawalpindi city. Authorities have taken her family into protective custody because of safety concerns and many Christians living in the poor neighbourhood fled their homes after the incident.
Paul Bhatti, the minister for national harmony, who is a Christian, said the government had assured full protection for Rimsha and her family.
Last year, Mr Bhatti's elder brother, Shahbaz, who was minister for minorities in President Asif Zardari's government, was shot in Islamabad by militants linked to Al Qaeda and the Taliban after calling for a change in the blasphemy law. His murder came two months after Zardari's close aide Salman Taseer, the governor of central Punjab province, was shot dead by his guard in Islamabad for the same reason.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse