With her face shrouded in a green blanket the 14-year-old Pakistani Christian girl, accused of blasphemy by a local mullah, was whisked to a waiting helicopter in an armored vehicle soon after being released on bail.
Flanked on all sides by a large security detail, Rimsha Masih was briskly marched to the awaiting chopper, as Pakistani authorities showed they were taking no chances with her security.
Masih was released from a prison in Rawalpindi, a garrison city near the Pakistani capital, on Saturday afternoon. Paul Bhatti, Pakistan's minister for national harmony, said Masih would soon be delivered to her family.
The decision to grant her release was reached following a lengthy hearing whereby the prosecution went to great lengths to undermine official medical reports, regarding both Rimsha’s physical and mental age.
But in his ruling granting bail, the judge presiding over the case said it was "not believable" that Masih had intentionally burnt verses from the Koran. He promptly ordered her release on Friday and set bail at about US$10,500, a massive sum in a country where GDP per capita stands at an estimated $2,800.
Her lawyer said her release was secured after two unidentified guarantors posted a surety bond against assurances that she would reappear in court, AFP reports. Whether or not Masih will have her day in court is still up in the air, with her legal team pressing to have the case dropped.
Masih, who is believed to suffer from a mental handicap, was arrested three weeks ago. Since there has been widespread speculation that concerning the blasphemy charges bought against her and fears they could result in the death penalty.
She is the first person to ever win bail after being accused of blasphemy in a case that could have historic implications for Pakistan, a country of 180 million where some 97 per cent of the country is Muslim and an estimated 52 people have been put to death for blasphemy over the last two decades.
She was originally detained on August 16 after an angry mob surrounded her house amid accusations she had burned pages from the Koran, a crime punishable by life imprisonment. But in a dramatic turn of events, police arrested Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, the imam from the slum neighborhood on the edge of Islamabad where Masih resided, after a local parishioner accused the cleric of planting charred pages from the religious text on the girl’s person.
The cleric has been accused of attempting to permanently drive several hundred Christian families from the neighborhood and is now facing blasphemy charges himself.
Whatever the result, Mahdi’s parents are said to have fled their home along with other Christian residents, fearing reprisal in a deeply conservative country.
Amidst this climate of fear, the prosecutor warned Masih could be beaten to death as acquittals in blasphemy cases often sparked riots and reprisals.
In July a man in the central Pakistani city of Bahawalpur was beaten to death by an angry mob after being accused of blasphemy. Last year, an angry mob descended on a police station in Punjab, dragging a suspect in a similar case out onto the street and setting him ablaze.
The thorny issue has some roots in Pakistan’s blasphemy legislation, dating back to the nations independence, with many local Muslims believing they are sacrosanct as their justification rests directly in the Koran itself.