PAKISTAN: Top Catholic human rights activist says blasphemy case against Rimsha Masih is "engineered"
By John Pontifex
Christian women in Pakistan praying
The case of a Pakistani Christian girl with learning difficulties accused of blasphemy has been “concocted” and should be dropped, according to the Catholic Church’s top human rights advocate.
Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the Catholic Church in Pakistan’s National Commission for Justice and Peace, said he strongly doubted the allegation that Rimsha Masih had desecrated texts containing verses of the Qur’an near her home on the outskirts of the capital, Islamabad.
On 17 August, Rimsha was accused of burning 10 pages of the Noorani Qaida, an Islamic booklet used to learn basic Arabic and the Qur’an.
It is also alleged that she put the booklet into a plastic bag and threw it into a bin. A police case was registered against Rimsha and she was placed in custody.
Intentional desecration of Qur’an texts carry a sentence of life imprisonment according to Section 295B of the Pakistan Penal Code – which are part of the country's notorious Blasphemy Laws.
Mr Jacob told Aid to the Church in Need that efforts toward Rimsha’s release should be redoubled after medical experts reported today (Tuesday, 28 August), that Rimsha’s physical age is under 14 and that her mental age is lower.
The findings mean that Rimsha’s case will be heard by Pakistan’s juvenile court system.
According to section 82 of Pakistan’s Penal Code, “nothing is an offence” if done by a child below the age of 12, assuming the child “has not attained sufficient maturity of understanding to judge the nature and consequences of his conduct on that occasion”.
Amid reports that Rimsha has Down syndrome, Mr Jacob highlighted evidence that she is also illiterate, adding: “I would say the case against Rimsha is concocted – engineered.”
He said evidence suggested her accusers had ulterior motives – political, social and economic – and that she was probably the victim of a “personal grudge”.
Commenting on today’s medical report on Rimsha, Mr Jacob said: “She should be released.”
He added: “There is ample evidence in her favour and she has won ample sympathy from the authorities, from the media and many others.”
Mr Jacob said a team of Christian and Muslim lawyers were now preparing a petition for her release which would be put before a judge, with a hearing due possibly on Thursday 30 August.
He went on to appeal to Pakistan’s government to “show more political will” in its response to the Rimsha and other blasphemy cases.
Mr Jacob said: “There is seldom a clear investigation into such cases. The government is reluctant to take a stand.”
He said a change in the blasphemy laws was only possible with pressure from the international community.
“In response to these cases, the government will generalise and will not endorse any particular legal position or stand up in favour of the victim.”
Meantime, with 300 or more families fleeing from G-12 sector Islamabad, where Rimsha lives, fearing retribution from extremists, Catholic leaders have stressed how the allegations against Rimsha have sparked deep anxiety among Christians and other minority groups.
Speaking today to Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop Sebastian Shaw, Apostolic Administrator of Lahore, referred to attacks on people’s homes following the allegation against Rimsha, adding: “Minority people are very much afraid.”
He said he had spoken to Rimsha’s bishop, Rufin Anthony of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, who recently visited the girl’s family.
Bishop Shaw said: “We are all very sorry about Rimsha. Bishop Rufin has consoled the family and it is clear they are very afraid.”
Bishop Shaw said people becoming “very emotional” about the case risked making it “very difficult to fight for justice”.