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Pakistani Christian girl accused of blasphemy released on bail

From Reza Sayah and Nasir Habib, CNN

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) – Pakistani authorities on Saturday released a teenage Christian girl detained over accusations of blasphemy in a case that has stoked religious tensions.

Her face concealed with a green scarf, Rimsha was ferried from Rawalpindi jail first by an armored personnel carrier and then by helicopter to an undisclosed location after a judge granted bail the day before.

The chopper’s force at one point blew away the 14-year-old’s covering. She appeared sad and scared.

A family representative, Basharat Khokhar, accompanied Rimsha’s father to the jail. The girl had not seen her father, a house painter, since her arrest last month.

A frightened Rimsha hugged him and began crying, Khokar told CNN.

“What’s happening to me and why?” she asked.

Khokhar said several nations — including Canada, Italy and the United States — have offered refuge to Rimsha and her family, but they wanted to remain in Pakistan.

Judge Muhammad Azam Khan ordered Rimsha’s release after hearing lengthy arguments from both sides.

Her lawyer, Pervez Khan, argued she should be freed on the grounds that she was an innocent girl whose intelligence level was low for her age, according to a medical report.

Khan said the girl was framed by a Muslim cleric who planted evidence against her.

The cleric’s lawyer said Rimsha burned pages of the Quran and that she should be punished no matter her age. Blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan.

Rimsha’s family fled their home on the outskirts of Islamabad from fear of retribution. Amnesty International said hundreds of Christians have left Rimsha’s neighborhood after she was accused.

In recent years, Pakistan’s religious minorities have come under violent attack and human rights groups have documented cases of people accused of blasphemy who have been killed by members of the public.

Authorities arrested Rimsha and her mother in mid-August after a neighbor accused her of burning pages containing texts from the Muslim holy book and angry mobs gathered at their house in Islamabad.

Rimsha had two shopping bags with her: one containing ashes and the other, the partially burned pages, police said. She had gathered the paper as fuel for cooking, authorities said.

The case, however, took a dramatic turn last weekend when police said the neighborhood cleric, Khalid Jadoon Chishti, had planted evidence in order to link Rimsha to the blasphemy allegations.

Now, the imam will himself will face blasphemy charges for tearing pages out of a Quran to use as evidence against the girl, police said.

Even though Rimsha’s lawyer said no one actually saw the girl burning the papers, the neighbor went to Chishti with the bags for safekeeping as evidence.

Chishti wasn’t certain that simply burning pages with texts from the Quran would be enough to convict Rimsha on blasphemy charges, police said.

So, he added two pages from the actual holy book to the bag to bolster the case.

Chishti was arrested a week ago after three witnesses told a judge about the imam’s actions. He was sent to jail for 14 days, accused of evidence tampering.

Chishti has denied the allegation.

Amnesty International called Rimsha’s release encouraging, but said the Pakistani government must urgently reform its blasphemy laws to prevent similar cases in the future.

“Rimsha, her family, and her Christian community in Islamabad remain under serious danger despite her being granted bail and even if she is eventually found innocent,” the group said.

Rimsha’s case, Amnesty said, “highlights the profound danger to communal harmony and rule of law caused by Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.”

CNN’s Moni Basu contributed to this report.

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