The Fate of Rimsha Masih

Even if cleared, the mentally disabled Pakistani girl accused of blasphemy may never be safe again.

On Wednesday, August 29, 2012, there appeared to be a good chance that Rimsha Masih, the young Pakistani Christian girl falsely accused of blasphemy against Islam and arrested on August 17, 2012, would soon be cleared of those charges. Rimsha’s attorney, Tahir Naveed Chaudry, was confident that the little girl’s case would be transferred from the local court in Pakistan’s federal capital of Islamabad to the more lenient juvenile court. But after the hearing on Thursday, August 30, Naveed expressed deep concern that threats against the court made by Islamists would result in the judge yielding to mob rule.

This precarious condition demonstrates that even when an individual defendant is cleared of such charges, it is only one more Band-Aid on the festering open sores that are Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws. Just the existence of these laws, included in Pakistan’s Penal Code, squashes free speech and religious freedom and ensures a life of misery and persecution for Christians and other religious minorities. The government of Pakistan needs to deal with those who make the initial accusations, the religious clerics and others who foment riots, and the resulting mobs that carry out the violence.

Being cleared would not mean that Rimsha would be welcomed back into the bosom of the Muslims in her village of Maherabad in Islamabad. Compass Direct News Service on August 30 quoted  Naveed, who said that “as with every blasphemy accused, Rimsha and her family won’t be able to return to their home as it may put their lives at risk.” For that matter, defending the little Christian girl, who is believed to have Down syndrome, may put the life of lawyer Naveed, an assemblyman from Punjab Province, at risk, as well. And as Naveed revealed, neither is the judge safe from the Islamist mob.

From the moment the accusation of burning pages of the Noorani Qaida, a booklet used to learn the basics of the Koran, was made against Rimsha, the mob mentality kicked in. According to Barnabas Fund, “the alleged incident was broadcast over the loudspeakers of the mosques in the area.” Barnabas Fund reported that enraged Muslims severely beat the little girl and members of her family, and torched the houses of two Christian families.

Most of the Christians in the area had to flee their homes and hide in the woods, since what passed for Friday prayers at the mosques was a pep talk against Christians by the imams. It ended with Muslims taking an oath to drive the Christians out of the area. Barnabas Fund reveals that Muslim shopkeepers vowed not to sell food and other essentials to Christians and that Muslim landlords would end tenancy agreements with them.

Rimsha was arrested under Section 295-B of Pakistan’s Penal Code which stipulates that desecration of the Koran must be punished with life in prison. She is in a maximum-security jail. It is no surprise that she is reported to be extremely traumatized by what she has been through. In spite of the trauma, though, Rimsha and her family are safer under protective custody. The imam of the local mosque called for her to be handed over to the mob and publicly burned. As unbelievable as that sounds, consider that just the month before, on July 4, such a mob dragged out of police custody a mentally-deficient Muslim man accused of blasphemy and burned him alive.

Attorney Naveed has been courageous to take the case to defend Rimsha. Attorneys before him who have defended Christians accused of blasphemy have been assassinated. He has also been courageous in his persistence in demonstrating both the falseness and irrationality of the charges. According to the Compass Direct report, Naveed “hinted that the blasphemy accusations against Rimsha may have been motivated partly by overtures toward her older sister being rebuffed.”

This would not be unusual. Christians and Muslims alike have been accused of blasphemy over land or other property disputes, business matters, and any kind of personal grudges. Christians in particular have been targeted for refusing attempts to force them to renounce their faith and convert to Islam, for protesting against the rape of their daughters (or sons), or for having the temerity of wanting to eat ice cream out of the same bowls used by Muslims.

In Rimsha’s case, the complaint against her was registered by a man named Malik Ammad, the son-in-law of the Masih family’s landlord. Naveed informed Compass Direct that Rimsha’s family told him that the man “had made several attempts to ‘befriend’ Rimsha’s older sister but had been unsuccessful.” This is just one more hardship of Christians in Pakistan. Christian girls are routinely abducted, raped, and forced to convert to Islam. In addition, Christian girls, particularly the daughters of pastors, are considered by Islamists to be trophies of jihad.

Hearteningly, many prominent Muslim groups, including the country’s leading body of Muslim clerics, have joined in the call for Rimsha’s release and for prosecution against those who falsely accused her. Allama Tahir Ashrafi, the chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council (APUC), condemned the mobs that regularly accuse people of blasphemy. He said it was it was like the “law of the jungle”, and called for the government to “make this case an example so that nobody will dare misuse the blasphemy law in future.” The Muslim groups have also spoken up for the other Christians who were forced to flee, asking the government to protect them and saying, “This is inhuman that those who have nothing to do with the case or are not a party to it are also being harassed.”

Attorney Naveed worked masterfully to overturn the blasphemy case. The case against Rimsha is based on “willful desecration of the Koran,” but the girl is both “too young and too mentally incapable” of intentional desecration, he said. A medical board supported Naveed’s claim that Rimsha was both a minor and “that her mental age is not compatible with her physical age.” But just as it seemed that her case would probably be transferred to a juvenile court, and that rational thinking would overrule the irrationality of the mob, Compass Direct reported that the prosecutor in the case made veiled hints that there would be violence if Rimsha was freed.

According to a Compass Direct report on Friday, August 31, Rao Abdur Raheem, a lawyer for the man who has accused Rimsha of blasphemy against Islam declared in court that she was guilty and said, “If the state overrides the court, then God will get a person to do the job.” Naveed called this an “open threat” that was meant to intimidate the court into trying Rimsha as an adult. Raheem challenged the medical report that gave evidence of the girl’s young age and mental condition. He asked the court to annul the report because, “the doctors and the State were supporting the Christian girl.” At that point, rather than ruling on the case, the judge postponed the trial until Saturday.

Raheem made additional threats that day. He had been the attorney for Mumtaz Qadri, the man who, in January 2011, assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a heroic reformer who called publicly for reform of the blasphemy laws. At Rimsha’s hearing, Raheem said, “Every person advocating (Rimsha’s) release should know that if she is allowed to walk free, there are many Mumtaz Qadris in this country.” He added that “if the court is not allowed to do its work, because the state is helping the accused, then the public has no other option except to take the law into their own hands.”

The irrationality of the charges against Rimsha Masih recall the charges against another Christian teenager, Salamat Masih. In 1993, when he was 12 years old, a local imam brought a blasphemy charge against Salamat, and his two uncles, Rehmat and Manzoor Masih, accusing them of writing insults against Mohammed on the wall of the mosque. Apart from the unlikely situation of Christians being foolish enough to write deliberately on the wall of a mosque, Salamat and both of the adult men were illiterate! But it didn’t matter to the mob. All three were imprisoned and charged with a crime punishable by death.

Manzoor Masih received his death sentence early, though, when he and the others were shot by members of an Islamic jihadist group on their way to court from the office of their defense counsel. Manzoor was killed instantly. Salamat his remaining uncle, along with a Christian advocate, John Joseph, were critically wounded, but survived. They were sentenced to death in February 1995, but the High Court overturned the sentence. The two Christians were settled in Germany since their lives were at risk in Pakistan. But as is now threatened by Islamist attorney Raheem regarding Rimsha’s case, the senior High Court judge who wrote the acquittal was murdered in his office by a religious extremist.

Naveed fears that Rimsha’s next court appearance is going to be “very volatile.” The Compass Direct story quoted him as saying, “Although the case is quite clear, it solely depends on the judge if he is willing to show courage and release the poor child on bail.” Naveed referred to another recent case in which a judge refused to give bail to a Christian man falsely accused of blasphemy on the pretext that he was safer inside the jail. He continued, “The judges are also under immense pressure, and since this case has already attracted immense media coverage and consequently attention of extremist elements, I can just hope and pray God works in this situation.”

Response from the U.S. State Department to this latest farcical case of blasphemy in Pakistan has been confined to a few statements. On August 20, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland called the case “deeply disturbing” and urged the Pakistani government to protect her. The State Department commended Pakistan’s President, Asif Ali Zardari, for “his quick reaction,” but spoke in terms of the “misuse of the blasphemy law.” To his or her credit, a reporter challenged her, “Is there any correct use of the blasphemy law in Pakistan? You said “misuse.” What would be the correct use?” Nuland replied that she was in a position to “parse this law and how it might stand up to other laws around the world.” In other words, the State Department will not defend the concept of universal human rights that include freedom from such draconian laws if they may in any way challenge Islamic law.

As Nina Shea, human rights attorney and director of The Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, has pointed out, the U.S. must oppose the blasphemy laws, not their abuse. Others, like Governor Taseer, a Muslim, and Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, have died opposing them. The least the U.S. government could do would be to denounce those laws that violate international standards of individual religious freedom and freedom of speech, and use the bully pulpit in opposition to them. (They could also penalize Pakistan’s government for failing to defend the minority populations by cutting – or at least threatening to cut – some of the billions of dollars in foreign aid we give them, but that’s another story.)

As for Rimsha’s family, they just want her back with them, and safe from harm. Of course if she is released, she and her family will have to flee to some other country for the rest of their lives. Her father, Misrek Masih, appealed to President Zardari, “We are afraid for her life… I’m asking President Asif Ali Zadari, who has already called for further attention into my daughter’s case, to pardon her and to prevent other people from being persecuted under these harsh laws like my daughter.” Allowing these harsh laws and the irrational people to use them and respond to them to thrive is allowing a climate that is ripe for terrorism and violence to thrive. The U.S. government should assist the Pakistani government to quash the Islamic extremists and provide protection and justice for vulnerable little girls like Rimsha and for all of Pakistan’s religious minorities.

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