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Pakistan imam accused of planting evidence in child blasphemy case

Pakistan police in Islamabad say they have arrested an imam who accused a Christian girl of blasphemy on suspicion he planted evidence.

Pakistani police escort Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti into an Islamabad court today.
Pakistani police escort Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti into an Islamabad court today.

ISLAMABAD // The imam who accused a young Christian girl of blasphemy for burning pages from the Quran was himself accused yesterday of planting the evidence.

Khalid Chishti was remanded in custody on charges of evidence-tampering and desecrating the Quran. Police say he told a witness it was a “way of getting rid of Christians”.

“The imam was arrested after his deputy Maulvi Zubair and two others told a magistrate he added pages from the Quran to the burnt pages brought to him by a witness,” police investigator Munir Hussain Jaffri said.

The girl in the case, Rimsha, said to be about 14 with learning disabilities, has been held in a high-security prison since she was arrested more than two weeks ago on charges of breaking Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws. On Friday, she was remanded in custody for two further weeks.

Her arrest has been condemned by western governments and angered rights groups who say Pakistan’s blasphemy legislation is often abused to settle personal scores.

Chishti is imam of the mosque in Rimsha’s area, and first gave police the burnt papers as evidence against her.

The imam was arrested at his home on Saturday night and appeared in court yesterday with a white blindfold and shackled hands, guarded by armed police commandos. He will be held at the same jail as Rimsha in Islamabad’s twin city, Rawalpindi.

Mr Zubair and the two others, Mohammad Shahzad and Awais Ahmed, said they had urged Chishti not to interfere with the papers, Mr Jaffri said.

“They protested that he should not add something to the evidence and he should give the evidence to the police as he got it and should not do this,” Mr Jaffri said. “But they said Chishti said, ‘You know this is the only way to expel the Christians from this area’.”

On August 24, Chishti said he thought Rimsha had burnt the pages deliberately as part of a Christian “conspiracy” to insult Muslims, and said action should have been taken sooner to stop what he called their “anti-Islam activities”.

“By putting these pages in the ashes he also committed desecration of the Holy Quran and he is being charged with blasphemy,” Mr Jaffri said.

Rimsha’s lawyer Tahir Naveed Chaudhry said the case against her was fatally flawed.

“This development has created doubts and under the law, the benefit of the doubt is always given to the accused,” he said. “Now it has been fully proven that it was a conspiracy. We want that Rimsha should be acquitted immediately.”

Chishti said the allegations against him were “concocted”.

Rao Abdur Raheem, his lawyer, said the development was intended to “spoil” his case and he accused the authorities of interfering.

“They are pressurising the complainants and witnesses to facilitate the bail of Rimsha,” he told the court.

A medical report last week said Rimsha had a mental age of less than 14, but the court has yet to decide whether to accept the assessment. Some reports have said Rimsha has Down syndrome. She is from the poor Islamabad suburb of Mehrabad. Her father has said he fears for his daughter’s life and for the safety of his family. He has called on the Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari to pardon her.

Rimsha’s parents are in protective custody after being threatened, and many other Christian families have fled the neighbourhood.

More than 150 Christians and rights activists held a protest march in Rawalpindi yesterday calling for Rimsha’s release.