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Pakistani court throws out blasphemy charge

Rimsha Masih was arrested in August after she was accused of blasphemy for allegedly burning an Islamic textbook.

AFP/Getty Images

Rimsha Masih was arrested in August after she was accused of blasphemy for allegedly burning an Islamic textbook.

ISLAMABAD — A Pakistani court ordered police to withdraw blasphemy charges against a Christian teenager on Tuesday, lawyers said, bringing an end to a contentious case that had gripped the country and sown fear in its Christian minority population.

The girl, Rimsha Masih, who comes from an impoverished family of sweepers, was arrested in August after Muslim ­accusers said she had been holding a burned copy of the Noorani Qaida, a religious textbook used to teach the Koran to children. Relatives and human rights workers have said that the girl, 14, has Down syndrome and should be exempt from the blasphemy laws.

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On Tuesday, Justice Iqbal Hameed ur Rahman, who heads the Islamabad High Court, stated in his judgment that there was no evidence for the charges against Masih. In his 15-page judgment, he urged extreme caution in matters related to blasphemy and criticized the practice of fake blasphemy accusations against non-Muslims.

‘‘The case against Rimsha Masih is finished,’’ said Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, one of her lawyers. ‘‘Justice has been served.’’

The accusations against Masih had triggered an outcry in Pakistan and were condemned worldwide, while renewing focus on Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law.

Rights groups say the law, which dates back to the colonial era, is increasingly used to discriminate against religious minorities and accusations are often framed to settle personal enmities and vendettas.

The case against Masih was particularly shocking as it involved a minor facing charges that carry the possibility of a death sentence. Government officials and several leading politicians expressed outrage over the blasphemy accusations, and in a rare development, several leading Islamic scholars and leaders also condemned them.

Masih was arrested on Aug. 16 in a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad after neighbors accused her of burning an Islamic textbook. A cleric, Muhammad Khalid Chishti, 30, who leads a mosque in the impoverished Mehr Jaffer neighborhood on Islamabad’s outskirts, stirred the furor by provoking the Muslim population and forcing hundreds of Christians, who mostly work as sweepers and domestic helpers, to temporarily flee the neighborhood in fear. Under pressure from angry Muslim protesters, police filed a case against Masih and arrested her.

But later, police investigations revealed that the cleric had himself added pages of a Koran to a heap of burned textbook pages that were retrieved from the girl. He was arrested for the false accusation but was released on bail in October. Masih was granted bail in September and her case was shifted to a juvenile court, but she and her family have been in hiding since her release because of fears for their safety.

“Police investigated on the proper lines,’’ Chaudhry, the lawyer, said. ‘‘Religious leaders played a very positive part. The pressure built by local news media also played a role in highlighting this case and created public pressure. Above all, the courts delivered justice.

‘‘I feel that with the development today, people who abuse blasphemy law, will be discouraged. I hope this will bring a full stop to false blasphemy cases.’’

Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, the chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, a group of Muslim clerics who campaigned for Masih’s release, called the court decision a ‘‘milestone in the history of Pakistan.’’

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