Heavily armed security officials rush Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl accused of blasphemy, to a military helicopter to fly her to a secret location. Photo: Reuters
RIMSHA Masih kept her face covered as she was bundled by heavily armed soldiers into the waiting military helicopter. As the soldier manning the fixed machinegun took his seat next to her, the 14-year-old girl let her veil fall and stared outside. The world caught a glimpse of the new, terrified, face of Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
But this scene, the image of a young girl frightened by something she couldn’t understand, and in a situation not of her making, may be the turning point for this unyielding, draconian law.
Rimsha Masih found herself embroiled in the latest blasphemy controversy in extraordinary circumstances, even by Pakistani standards.
Villagers protest against the country’s strict blasphemy laws. Photo: AFP
Rimsha is a poor Christian who lived in a slum on the outskirts of the country’s capital Islamabad. On August 16, a baying mob surrounded her family’s tiny concrete home and threatened to set it on fire.”We are going to burn you inside your house,” the mob reportedly yelled, as the Masih family cowered inside. ”Then we will burn the homes of the other Christians.”
The mob was there because local cleric Khalid Chishti had alleged Rimsha had desecrated the Koran. He said he saw torn and burnt pages of a child’s religious textbook in the plastic rubbish bag Rimsha was carrying to a nearby dump. Police quickly came and arrested Rimsha, rescuing her from the mob. But they then imprisoned her in an adult jail despite the fact she was 14, illiterate, and intellectually disabled.
The case grew stranger still. After two weeks, the imam who had first accused her was himself arrested. His deputy came forward to police, telling them he had seen Chishti plant the torn pages in Rimsha’s bag. It was, he said, an attempt to ”rid the neighbourhood of Christians”.
Pakistani Christian Rimsha Masih, 14, has been accused of blasphemy. Photo: AFP
More witnesses came forward to corroborate the fabrication, and Rimsha was hurriedly bailed, and arrangements were made for her security.
Despite rumours she has been spirited out of the country, Rimsha remains in Pakistan. ”I’m scared … I’m afraid of anyone who might kill us,” she told a TV interviewer.
Masih’s case has challenged Pakistan in a way that previous blasphemy trials have not. For the first time, prominent Islamic scholars have spoken out against her arrest and persecution, and have called for reform of the blasphemy laws.
Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi, chairman of the Islamic clerical group, the Ulema Council, and a man with links to hardline religious groups, took the extraordinary step of describing Rimsha as ”Pakistan’s daughter”.
”The law of the jungle is taking over now and anybody can be accused of anything,” he said in support of the Christian girl’s release.
”We see Rimsha as a test case for Pakistan’s Muslims, Pakistan’s minorities and for the government. We don’t want to see injustice done … we will work to end this climate of fear. The accusers should be proceeded against with full force, so that no one would dare make spurious allegations.”
Other senior Muslim clerics have also urged restraint concerning Masih, and for reform of the blasphemy laws.
The chairman of the Pakistan Interfaith League, Sajid Ishaq, said widespread Muslim support for a moderation of the law was unprecedented.
”This is the first time in the history of Pakistan that [the] Muslim community and scholars have stood up for non-Muslims. We are together, demanding justice, demanding an unbiased investigation.”
The tide, for so long running towards a stricter interpretation of blasphemy, and harsher punishments for transgressions, may have been turned by one small girl. (Rimsha still faces the blasphemy charge but on Monday an Islamabad court gave police until Friday to formally file a charge sheet against her.)
But there remains a fundamental stumbling block: the co-operation of the body that will actually legislate to reform the law.
Two years ago, Pakistan’s parliament was considering a bill to amend the blasphemy law, to make it more difficult to make false accusations. Then a noted advocate for change, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, was gunned down by his own bodyguard.
Emboldened religious groups grew more vocal in their opposition to the bill and the government’s resolve wilted. The bill was withdrawn in February 2011.
Even with the proposed law off the table, another prominent supporter of reform, minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti was killed the following month.
Xavier William, from advocacy group Life for All Pakistan, told The Age a lack of political will was holding the country back.
”The Ulema Council now talks about the reforms in the blasphemy laws, and many secular Pakistanis are talking about the reforms, but the legislation must be done by the parliament, which is silent,” he says.
”Pakistan’s government took a U-turn on the reforms in the blasphemy laws after Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti’s assassinations. I don’t see anything happening in the near future.”
Pakistan’s government is unpopular and weak; it has lost one prime minister for contempt of court and may lose another. It faces elections probably before the end of the year. So moves to moderate the blasphemy laws will be portrayed by religious parties as an act against Islam. It would be electoral suicide.
Since 1986, when the death penalty was inserted into the blasphemy law, for: ”whoever … defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)”, no one who has ever been convicted and sentenced to die has been executed by the state. Instead, the law has become a cover for murder.
Since 1990, 52 people have been killed by vigilantes after being accused of blasphemy, according to latest figures just released by the Centre for Research and Security Studies.
A list of those murdered includes Muslim, Christian and Hindu names. In 2008 Hindu Jagdesh Kumar was killed by colleagues at a Karachi factory, allegedly as police watched on.
In 2009, eight Christians in Gojra were burnt to death in their homes after rumours were spread that a Koran had been desecrated during a wedding ceremony.
A year later, two Christian brothers, Rashid and Sajid Emmanuel, were gunned down as they sat, handcuffed in police custody, in a courthouse during their trial.
The number of blasphemy cases is rising sharply in Pakistan. Under nearly 100 years of British rule, from 1851 to 1947, only seven cases of blasphemy were reported. But under the military dictatorship of religious hardliner Zia-ul-Haq from 1978 to 1988, 80 blasphemy cases were taken to court.
Since his rule, as Pakistan has grown steadily more religiously conservative and militant, more than 250 cases have been lodged.
While the Masih case has garnered international attention and pressured Islamabad’s court into the extraordinary decision to grant bail – no accused blasphemer has ever been bailed before – the terror of the blasphemy law lies in how often it is abused without attracting any public attention.
In July, a nameless man who was believed to be mentally ill was accused of burning pages of the Koran.
He was arrested and locked up at the police station in Chani Ghoth, in the Bahawalpur district in Punjab. But local imams heard of his alleged offence and began broadcasting over loudspeakers that a man had offended Islam.
”A huge mob gathered outside the police station and they demanded to hand over the person who had committed blasphemy,” the Chani Ghoth deputy superintendent of police said.
”They even blocked the main highway and within a few moments the mob broke the gates of the police station and attacked the police officers.”
The accused man was dragged from the lock-up into the street outside.
”Before we could know the details about the person who was arrested, the mob broke the lock-up and took out the prisoner, threw petrol on him and burnt him alive.” No one was ever charged and the dead man’s name was never discovered.
Given the consequences of being accused of blasphemy, the law is regularly used in Pakistan to settle grievances unrelated to religion, involving disputes over land and money or it can come to just petty personal enmity.
Asia Bibi, also known as Asia Noreen, was a Christian mother of four, from a poor, illiterate family, working as a farmhand in Punjab in 2009.
After she was asked to fetch some water, some of her Muslim fellow workers refused to drink it, believing Christians to be unclean. In the argument that followed, Ms Bibi is alleged to have denigrated Islam. Her neighbours tried to execute her on the spot.
”They tried to put a noose around my neck so that they could kill me,” she said during her trial.
Advocates say Bibi never blasphemed and that the dispute stemmed from a running feud with a neighbour over some minor property damage.
But she was convicted and sentenced to hang. She awaits either death at the hands of the state, or, if she is ever freed, at the hands of vigilantes.
A radical cleric has offered half a million Pakistani rupees for anyone prepared to ”finish her”.
Xavier William says Pakistan lives in fear of the mob.
”The use of this law has created an environment where some religious fanatics believe that they are entitled to take the law into their own hands.
”There have been many instances, where the local administration and police have either colluded with perpetrators or have stood by and done nothing to assist the accused.”
Just over a year ago, The Age met Paul Bhatti in Islamabad when he returned to Pakistan after many years working as a surgeon in Italy.
His brother Shahbaz had been the minorities minister in the Pakistani government, the only Christian in the cabinet, and someone who was strongly critical of the blasphemy laws.
Indirectly, those laws claimed Shahbaz Bhatti, too.
Gunmen surrounded Shahbaz’s government car one morning as he drove to work from his mother’s house and opened fire on him and his eight-year-old niece.
A few days after his brother’s murder Paul Bhatti told The Age that Pakistan’s minorities did not seek the repeal of a blasphemy law that was administered fairly, but wanted to stop its murderous abuse.
”Our aim is equality of all people in Pakistan. This is a critical moment, a time of warning for our country. This country could progress, it could learn and grown stronger from this, or it could be lost to extremists. And then Pakistan will be gone.”
Ben Doherty is South Asia correspondent.