LAHORE, Pakistan – The Pakistan blasphemy case against 14-year-old Rimsha Masih has taken a sudden turn against her.
The Christian girl was charged with blasphemy more than a month ago for allegedly burning pages from the Quran. Four witnesses then came forward accusing Muslim cleric Khalid Jadoon Chishti of tearing out the pages himself to falsely incriminate Masih.
But CNN reported Oct. 1 that, according to the cleric’s lawyer, three of the witnesses recanted their testimony during the cleric’s bail hearing.
In a sworn statement before a court in Islamabad, the men claimed police tortured them and forced them to make statements against Chishti, according to the Express Tribune. A fourth witness is standing by his original testimony against the cleric.
Police insist they never pressured the witnesses, with Islamabad’s police chief accusing the men of lying to the court.
“If they have changed their statements, they are just lying,” Chief Bin Yamin told CNN.
Masih, who is reportedly mentally handicapped, was accused of burning pages from the Quran in August when a neighbor claimed he saw her carrying a trash bag with burnt pages of the Muslim holy book. After an irate mob surrounded her house and threatened to burn her alive, police arrested her – they claimed for her own protection – and charged her with desecrating the Quran, a crime that carries a life sentence.
According to CNN, Masih’s lawyers say the neighbor wanted to settle a personal score with the girl, probably because he liked her and she didn’t return his affection. Masih’s lawyers added that no one actually saw her burning pages from the Quran, but the neighbor brought a trash bag to Chishti containing burnt pages of a book that included quotations from the holy book.
Police said Chishti was not certain that merely burning a book that contained quotations from the Quran would be enough for a blasphemy charge, so he tore out pages from an actual Quran and added them to the bag in order to strengthen the case against Masih.
CNN reported that Chishti now faces charges of tampering with evidence and could potentially be charged with blasphemy for tearing out pages from the Quran.
The particulars of Masih’s case, including her age, mental state and the accusations against Chishti, have gained the girl support from Muslim leaders. It has also renewed charges by critics that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws unfairly target religious minorities and can be used to settle personal vendettas.
Abdul Hamid Rana, Masih’s leading lawyer, told CNN that the Islamabad High Court will consider dropping the charges against Masih on Oct. 17. If the charges are not dropped, her case will proceed in juvenile court, which Ali Dayan Hasan, the Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch, told CNN “is a precursor to the case ending.”
Regardless of the final verdict, Masih’s life will likely be in danger, as vigilantes have murdered accused blasphemers in the past. CNN says aid groups in the United States, Italy and Canada have offered refuge to Masih and her family, but she wants to remain in Pakistan.
After being released on bail last month, Masih spoke with CNN by phone from a secret location, saying she did not defile the Quran and that although she was happy to be with her family, she feared possible consequences.
“I’m scared,” she said. “I’m afraid of anyone who might kill us.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Compiled by John Evans, a writer in Houston.)