The penalties for committing the crime of blasphemy in Pakistan are cruel, if not unusual. But even if little Rimsha is acquitted of the charges, she still faces the possibility of death.
Rimsha Masih is a 14-year-old Christian girl believed to have Down’s Syndrome. She resides in the town of Mehrabad, a poverty-stricken slum on the outskirts of Islamabad.
This summer, one of Rimsha’s neighbors claimed he saw her burn the pages of a holy book that contained Koranic verses. Such conduct constitutes “blasphemy” in violation of Pakistan’s penal code. The rumor spread like wildfire and local clerics whipped up religious sentiment, riling up the masses.
Subsequently, on August 16, 2012, Rimsha was playing in an area close to her home when she was attacked by a vicious mob of religious fanatics, intent on killing her. She and her mother were severely beaten.
A call to the local police station prompted Rimsha’s arrest. She and her mother were carted off to jail, where Rimsha sat traumatized in a high security prison for three weeks, waiting for her bail hearing.
During that time, the Ramna Police Department conducted an investigation of Rimsha’s case. It discovered that Imam Khalid Jadoon Chishti had framed Rimsha as part of a larger scheme to force Christians in the area to flee their homes permanently. Several witnesses stated that the Imam held extreme animosity toward “infidel Christians” and knew that blasphemy charges against Rimsha would force a mass exodus of local Christians from their homes.
Indeed it did. Outraged Muslims sought to collectively punish Rimsha’s entire village, which consisted of approximately 800 Christians, by threatening their lives and property. Hundreds fled due to fear and intimidation.
At Rimsha’s bail hearing, the police contended that there was no factual evidence to support the claim that Rimsha had committed blasphemy, but instead she had been framed by the Imam. Rimsha was a street sweeper, a job often performed by poor Christians for meager pay. It seems that she had swept up some pages from the Noorani Qaida – a primer used to teach children the Islamic Holy Scriptures – and then placed them in her plastic bag to throw out. At least three witnesses testified that Imam Chishti said he was unsure if this was sufficient to uphold a blasphemy charge, so he personally ripped out pages from the Koran, burned them himself and then planted them in Rimsha’s bag.
Based on the information provided by the police report, in addition to witness testimony, the judge granted Rimsha bail on September 8, 2012. She and her mother were airlifted from the jailhouse to an undisclosed location where they were placed in hiding for their own protection. They will remain there until the next hearing date, which is scheduled for October 17, 2012. At that time, the court will consider the defense attorney’s petition to dismiss Rimsha’s case due to lack of evidence.
Subsequently, the Imam was arrested for framing Rimsha. It is unprecedented that anyone in Pakistan has ever been held to account for making false blasphemy charges. Rimsha’s case has drawn international attention due to her age and mental incapacity. It is likely that the arrest was prompted by outrage abroad, pressuring the Pakistani government to let Rimsha go free. It remains to be seen whether the Imam will be charged with his crimes (witness tampering and possibly additional charges of blasphemy), or whether his arrest was a show, staged for the benefit of the international audience and the human rights watch dogs who have been monitoring Rimsha’s case.
After the Imam’s arrest, three of the witnesses who had testified against the Imam recanted their statements. They claimed that they had been coerced by the police to accuse the Imam of framing Rimsha. Police and investigators insist this is false and that any claims to the contrary constitute blatant lies.
Initially, Rimsha was hailed into Islamabad’s High Court to be tried as an adult. She was charged for blasphemy under Section 295(B) of the Pakistan Penal Code for defiling the Koran. A conviction in this court would require a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Other sections of the blasphemy law prohibit a range of behavior from insulting Islam, derogatory remarks about the Prophet, etc. The penalties range from fines to mandatory execution. After a dispute regarding Rimsha’s age, the court accepted a medical report declaring her chronological age to be 14 (albeit with a younger mental age due to her condition).
Accordingly, on September 24, 2012 the court declared that Rimsha’s case will be transferred to juvenile court where her case will proceed if it’s not dismissed. This is good news for Rimsha, as juvenile courts are generally more lenient than adult courts.
However, even if she is acquitted, Rimsha is not safe. Literally hundreds of religious clerics throughout Pakistan are demanding a guilty verdict and calling for Rimsha’s death. They have made it clear that if their demands aren’t met, they will take matters into their own hands.
Though aid groups in Italy, Canada and the United States have offered refuge for Rimsha and her family, Rimsha wants to remain in her motherland. Unfortunately, the mere taint of the blasphemy allegations will no doubt outlive the actual court case, and her chances of returning home alive are slim. In other words, even if Rimsha escapes a judicial mandate of execution, in reality, she will still face the threat of death.
Rimsha’s is only one story. But there are many more like hers that go unreported. According to Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan Director of Human Rights Watch, 1400 people in Pakistan have been charged with the crime of blasphemy since 1986; currently, there are 15 people sitting on Pakistan’s death row for blasphemy convictions and thus far, 52 people have been murdered by mobs while awaiting their day in court.
The blasphemy laws in Pakistan have existed for scores of years. They originated in India in 1860 under British colonial rule where they were intended to quiet hate speech considered offensive to Muslim minorities. The law was imported to Pakistan as a way to keep the peace and reduce strife amongst different religions. Later, in 1986, under an Islamist government, the laws were amended to include the penalties of life imprisonment and mandatory execution.
Though the initial intent of the law had a feel-good sense about it, as is always the case with speech restrictive laws, in practice it had an effect opposite of its stated purpose. The wording of the law is vague and subjective. It is used to carry out personal grievances and settle economic scores. It is disproportionately applied against those most vulnerable – religious minorities, women, children and the poor. And, scores of Pakistanis are implicated in false charges entirely.
The human rights violations and extrajudicial death threats such as those faced by Rimsha, are the inevitable result in a country that for decades has fostered an environment which values “defamation” protections for Islam over basic human dignity.
It is no coincidence that Pakistan, which originally sought to prioritize peace at the expense of free expression and individual liberty, wound up with neither. Poor Rimsha.
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