Friday, September 7, 2012

Mentally Disabled, Fourteen, and Framed

In a story that is reading increasingly like a soap opera, the Pakistani Christian girl who has been jailed for three weeks on blasphemy charges was finally released on bail today.  Fourteen-year-old Rimsha Masih was arrested after she was found allegedly carrying burnt pages of the Qur’an on 16 August. She has been held in a maximum-security facility as fears for her safety run high and her family has been taken into protective custody. In a dramatic twist, Imam Khalid Chishti was arrested shortly before Rimsha was bailed. He allegedly was given burned pages of the Qur’an by a witness, then added more to the pile and planted them on Rimsha to incite violence against Christians and force them from the neighborhood and, more broadly, the country. His own deputy Maulvi Zubair and two others came forward to testify that he, not Rimsha, had desecrated the holy book.

Christian protestors march in Faisalabad in 2011 following the desecration of a Christian cemetery and gang rape of a Christian woman.

It is unclear whether or not Rimsha is mentally disabled and thus easier to manipulate. Doctors who examined her described her mental faculties as being below the level of her “chronological age.” Regardless, hers is only the latest in a long line of blasphemy cases in Pakistan being used to exact revenge on Christians and other minorities. Pakistani blasphemy law is constantly under fire from human rights agencies for legalizing discrimination against Christians, who number at least 2.8 million and form a significant minority bloc. Under the law, a person can be jailed for life or even executed for various forms of blasphemy, such as insulting the Prophet Muhammed or damaging the Qur’an.

Although Rimsha’s case has garnered sympathy from many Pakistanis due to her age, mental capacity, and apparent innocence, she will still have to live in hiding in Pakistan for the rest of her life. Violent reprisals for criticism of the law alone have reached the highest levels of society. In March 2011 the minister of minority affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, was murdered for speaking out against the blasphemy laws. A few months earlier in January, the Governor of Punjab Province Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by his own security guard for his opposition to the law. The guard has been hailed as a hero by many in Pakistan and celebrated by extremist groups. The Governor’s son Shahbaz Taseer was kidnapped the same year and has yet to be found and no ransom has been demanded. Most assume he is dead.

Those who allegedly break the blasphemy laws also face harsh punishments. In the most high profile case, Christian Asia Bibi was arrested in 2009 for insulting the Prophet and sentenced to death by hanging a year later. The mother of five was engaged in a dispute over water with coworkers as well as an argument with a neighbor over property damage when she made the illegal remarks. Many suspect that she was framed as retaliation for the disagreements. Despite worldwide condemnation of her sentence including a call for clemency by Pope Benedict XVI, Asia remains in prison and legal limbo.

St. Patrick's Cathedral in Karachi.

Unfortunately for the millions of Christians in Pakistan, the blasphemy laws are publicly very popular and repealing them is often labeled as blasphemous itself. Many Christians and observers report that the misuse of the laws to punish Christian neighbors for unrelated arguments is widespread. In Rimsha’s case, it is fairly clear that an innocent girl was manipulated as a pawn by an overzealous cleric hoping to incite violence and chaos. His tactics appear to have worked. Hundreds of Christian families have fled the area in fear of reprisals, forced to leave all they own behind.

Until Pakistan fully repeals the laws, no minority can be totally secure knowing that at any time their neighbors and enemies could bring charges of blasphemy against them. It is a human rights travesty that such a significant portion of Pakistan’s population is forced to live in fear and doubt. The mere existence of a case in a neighborhood can spell out displacement for the entire Christian community simply for believing in a different creed than most Pakistanis. For Pakistani Christians, a repeal cannot come soon enough. Given the political and religious climate of Pakistan, however, such a positive change is very unlikely to happen for this generation, which leaves fourteen-year-old girls vulnerable to be preyed upon by extremists, peaceful activists to be murdered by those who are supposed to protect them, and millions of Pakistanis to be legally discriminated against and marginalized.

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