Christian girl hailed as 'daughter of nation' by senior Pakistani cleric
Girl accused of blasphemy in Pakistan may have been framed by Muslim cleric
Pakistani mullah accused of trying to frame girl in blasphemy case
Jon Boone in Islamabad
Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti is arrested after witnesses say he added pages of Qur'an to girl's bag
Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti appeared in court on Sunday after witnesses claimed to have seen him adding pages of the Qur'an to a bag of ashes Rimsha Masih had been carrying away for disposal last month in order to strengthen the case against her.
Although many of the cases brought under the country's much criticised blasphemy laws are thought to be spurious, the Rimsha case is thought to be the first time in the more than two decades since the laws were introduced that someone has been arrested for fabricating evidence.
But while the dramatic turn of events delighted the girl's supporters, a prosecution lawyer insisted he would press ahead with the case against her.
Last month a local man, Malik Hammad, spotted the girl with the ashes and accused her of burning a prayer book that included passages from the Qur'an, a particularly provocative form of blasphemy which can carry the death penalty.
Police arrested the girl amid uproar in the neighbourhood of Mehrabadi, a poor area on the outskirts of Islamabad. Locals had been whipped into a frenzy by Chishti, who reportedly showed the burned pages to mosque-goers at evening prayers and led a crowd of people to Rimsha's house.
But after two weeks of controversy during which the case has been criticised by both human rights groups and even hardline religious conservatives, three of Chishti's deputies have come forward to implicate the mullah.
Hafiz Mohammad Zubair told Geo TV that he witnessed Chishti putting two pages of the Qu'ran into a plastic bag of ashes in order to strengthen the case against the girl.
Zubair said: "I asked him what he was doing and he said this is the evidence against them and this is how we can get them out from this area."
Chishti was brought blindfolded and handcuffed before a court in Islamabad on Sunday morning where he was ordered to remain in police custody for 14 days.
Tahir Naveed Chaudhry from the All Pakistan Minority Committee said it had always maintained that evidence was planted on her.
"And now it is proved that the whole story was only designed to dislocate the Christian people," he said. "He must be prosecuted under the blasphemy law as it will set a precedent against anyone else who tries to misuse that law."
In a bail application made last week defence lawyers said Rimsha was just 13 years old and should therefore be tried under Pakistan's juvenile justice system. It also claimed the girl had Down's syndrome and therefore "cannot commit such a crime".
On Sunday the head of the country's Ulema council, a board of senior clerics, demanded the punishment of Chishti and the immediate release of Rimsha. However, Rao Abdur Raheem, the lawyer representing the girl's accuser Hammad, said the development did not change his case. He said he was "1,000% sure" that her bail application, due to be heard on Monday, would be rejected.
"Our case is totally separate from the case against Chishti," he said. "The man who accused him of adding pages from the Qur'an also confirmed that Rimsha burned a book containing verses from the Qur'an."
Chishti had made no secret of his distaste for the several-hundred-strong Christian community of Mehrabadi, even appearing on national television to bemoan the noisiness of church services which he said had disturbed Muslim residents, the overwhelming majority in the area.
He also welcomed the panicked departure of most of the Christians from the area following the furore. He had reportedly made an announcement from the mosque's loudspeaker telling them to leave the area.
"We are not upset the Christians have left and we will be pleased if they don't come back," Chishti told the Guardian on 18 August.
However, his actions may well have alienated the community's Muslim landlords who rely on poor Christian families to rent their properties.
Human rights groups say the blasphemy laws are often used to settle vendettas and property disputes. People have been sentenced to long jail terms on extremely weak evidence, some of which cannot even be examined in court for fear of repeating the alleged blasphemy.
Others have been killed by furious mobs, such as last July when a mentally ill man was dragged from a police station in Punjab province and burned alive in the street.
Ali Dayan Hasan, head of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, said he hoped the arrest of Chishti would "act as a deterrent to further frivolous charges and will seek to temper this atmosphere of impunity with which extremists incite violence against vulnerable people in the name of blasphemy".
But it is unlikely the controversy over Rimsha will lead to fundamental reform of Pakistan's blasphemy laws as the country gears up for an election. Last year two prominent politicians were assassinated by religious hardliners after speaking out against the law.
Mumtaz Qadri, a former security guard who last year gunned down his boss, Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab at the time, is regarded by many Pakistanis as a hero for killing a man who had publicly criticised the blasphemy laws and given his backing to a Christian woman who had been sentenced to death for the crime.
Chairman of All Pakistan Ulema Council vows to guarantee safety of girl accused of blasphemy if she is released from prison
Jon Boone in Islamabad
The heavyweight support for Rimsha Masih from the chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, a grouping of Islamic clerics, is being seen as a remarkable turn of events in a country where individuals accused of insulting Islam are almost never helped by powerful public figures.
In a fiery press conference at a central Islamabad hotel, Hafiz Mohammad Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, flanked by other senior clerics, demanded all the organs of the Pakistani state come together to investigate the circumstances surrounding the arrest last month of a girl who it is claimed has Down's syndrome.
He also lambasted Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, the imam from the Mehrabadi slum neighbourhood on the edge of Islamabad, who was accused over the weekend of tampering with evidence in order to ensure the girl's conviction.
"Our heads are bowed with shame for what Chishti did," Ashrafi said.
He later said Chishti was merely the front man for other individuals "behind the scene" who wanted to stoke local antagonism against the Christian minority in the area in order to force them to flee.
"I have known for the last three months that some people in this area wanted the Christian community to leave so they could build a madrasa there," he said.
Ashrafi said he would divulge more information about the people behind the alleged effort to construct an Islamic seminary on the properties vacated by the Christians at a later date.
The cleric, who has in the past been associated with the Defence of Pakistan Council, which includes members of banned militant groups, was speaking hours after a judge's decision to further delay a bail hearing for Rimsha until later in the week.
Lawyers acting for Malik Hammad, a man from Rimsha's neighbourhood who claims to have caught her carrying away the charred remains of a book that included verses from the Qur'an, said they could not conduct a trial because the Punjab Bar Association was holding a one-day strike.
However, the case against Chishti continued to grow after two more witnesses recorded statements implicating the mullah in a plot to strengthen the case against Rimsha.
The imam was accused late last week by his own deputy, Hafiz Mohammad Zubair, who told police that after Chishti was presented with the burnt refuse spotted by Malik he added two pages from the Qur'an.
"I asked him what he was doing and he said this is the evidence against them and this is how we can get them out from this area," Zubair told a Pakistani television station.
It is the first time in a blasphemy case that someone has ever been arrested for fabricating evidence – although it remains unclear why it took more than two weeks for Zubair to come forward with the incriminating statement.
Gabriel Francis, a lawyer at Pakistan's supreme court, said the atmosphere of fear surrounding the blasphemy law probably deterred him.
"It is very hard to come forward when in previous cases a governor and a minister were killed for speaking out," he said, referring to Shahbaz Bhatti, a former minorities minister, and Salman Taseer, the former governor of the Punjab. Both men were assassinated last year after they infuriated extremists by publicly criticising the blasphemy laws.
On Sunday, Ashrafi said he had been moved to speak out after reading reports that Rimsha had Down's syndrome, a condition that also affects Ashrafi's 15-year-old son. He said the Ulema Council would guarantee Rimsha's security from vigilantes or extremists if she was released.
"It would be against the honour of the country to send someone out of Pakistan due to non-provision of security at government level," a joint statement by the Ulema Council and the Pakistan Interfaith League said.
However, Ashrafi said there was no need to change or repeal the law – despite campaign groups claiming it is wide open to abuse and allows people to be sentenced to life imprisonment on the basis of threadbare evidence that is often never challenged in court.
"There is no problem with the law – only the implementation of the law is the problem," he said.