ISLAMABAD — A Pakistani court on Saturday dismissed charges against a cleric who accused a young Christian girl of blasphemy and who was arrested last year for allegedly forging evidence against her, his lawyer said.
The case had brought new spotlight on Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws, sections of which carry the death penalty or life imprisonment. However, the laws retain broad support in this country, where Islamic conservatism is on the rise alongside extremism and many Muslims are highly sensitive about their faith.
The lawyer, Wajid Gilani, said the district judge in Islamabad on Saturday granted the motion to acquit his client, cleric Khalid Chishti, after the judge ruled that the prosecution had not brought forward sufficient evidence.
Chishti was the imam, or prayer leader, at the mosque in the mixed, Muslim-Christian neighborhood of Maherabadi in the Pakistani capital.
He had accused the young girl of burning pages of Islam's holy book last year. He said a man had allegedly brought him a plastic bag containing some burned papers and ash, claiming the girl had been carrying them around.
The bag was submitted as evidence to the police and subsequently the girl was arrested to pacify the angry mob in the neighborhood.
But then, the cleric himself was arrested and accused of planting pages of the Quran in the bag. The girl was released on bail after spending three weeks in jail and subsequently found shelter in Canada along with her family.
After the girl's arrest, most of the other Christian families fled the Islamabad neighborhood where the incident happened, fearing retribution. They took refuge in a forested area in central Islamabad but were kicked out of the area the following day by angry residents.
Meanwhile, there were contrary reports about the girl – some said she was 11 years old and has Down's syndrome; a medical board said she was about 14 and that her mental age didn't match her physical age.
The defense lawyer, Gilani, insisted on his client's innocence and claimed police had implicated Chishti in false charges.
"My client was innocent from the very beginning and he had to suffer for no crime," said the lawyer.
The prosecutor and the investigating officer could not be reached for comment on Saturday.
Rao Abdur Raheem, a lawyer for the man who brought the initial complaint against the girl, questioned who had burned the Quran since Chishti was exonerated and the girl had been released previously.
"My case is still there, blasphemy occurred but who should we now blame for it," asked Raheem.
Human rights activists say Pakistan's blasphemy laws are too broad and vague, and are often used by people trying to settle scores with rivals or target religious minorities, who make up 5 percent of Pakistan's 180 million people
Few leaders in this predominantly Muslim country have shown willingness to tackle the contentious issue, especially after two prominent politicians who criticized the blasphemy law were murdered in recent years. One of the politicians was shot by his own bodyguard, who then attracted adoring crowds.
Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana in Islamabad contributed to this report.