Pakistani police arrested an Imam on Sunday over accusations he had planted evidence on a Christian girl accused of burning a Koran, allegedly to frame her. Witnesses say the cleric tore pages from the Koran and planted them in the girl’s bag.
Imam Khalid Chishti had previously presented police with evidence that Rimsha Masih – a Christian girl believed to be 11 to 14 years old who may also be mentally disabled – had committed blasphemy by burning pages of the Koran. He was arrested on Sunday after witnesses claimed he had falsified the evidence.
“The imam was arrested after his deputy Maulvi Zubair and two others told a magistrate he added pages from the Koran to the burnt pages brought to him by a witness,” AFP quoted police official Munir Hussain Jafri as saying.
“They protested that he should not add something to the evidence and he should give the evidence to the police as he got it and should not do this," Jaffri said.
Chishti allegedly responded by saying, “You know this is the only way to expel the Christians from this area.”
Masih's arrest in August on blasphemy charges prompted international concern. Masih was accused by Chishti and others of burning pages of the Koran, an offense punishable by death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Masih’s age is unknown, but she is believed to be around 14. A government-appointed medical board concluded that she is developmentally disabled, the BBC reported.
The controversy deepened amid reports that the girl was not actually seen burning the pages, but was rather found with pages torn from the Koran in her bag.
Paul Bhatti, Pakistani Minister for National Harmony, said that the girl was known to have a mental disability – supposedly Down syndrome – and that it seemed “unlikely she purposefully desecrated the Koran.”
On August 24, Chishti told AFP he believed Masih was part of a Christian "conspiracy" to insult Muslims, and had deliberately burned the holy book. He demanded that action be taken to stop what he called "anti-Islam activities" in Mehrabad.
"He has committed a greater offense than the girl by burning the pages himself and adding to the evidence that was given to him and he should get punishment," Jaffri said.
Masih is currently being held in an Islamabad prison. Pakistani police denied a bail request on her behalf last week, claiming her release would endanger both her life and her family's. Masih's family has already been taken into protective custody.
Masih’s arrest on August 20 sparked widespread protests in Pakistan. Christian rights groups called for her release, along with amendments to the penal code, while Muslim groups have called for the girl to be burned alive.
Several Christian families have fled Masih’s neighborhood in fear of reprisals amid the uproar.
The case has highlighted tensions between Pakistan’s Muslim and Christian communities. Christians make up around 4 percent of the country's population. Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws have also come under heavy criticism in the wake of Masih's arrest.
The All Pakistan Christian League held a protest in Karachi on Saturday, demanding a judicial inquiry into why a mentally disabled minor was arrested in the first place, and for changes to the country's penal code. Demonstrators chanted “Stop killing innocent people in the name of blasphemy,” “Abolish the blasphemy law” and “Talibanization not acceptable.”