Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pakistani girl accused of burning Qur'an jailed

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A Christian girl was sent to a Pakistani prison after being accused by her furious Muslim neighbours of burning pages of the Islamic holy book, the Qur'an, in violation of the country's strict blasphemy laws.

A police official said Monday there was little evidence pages of the book had been burned and the case would likely be dropped. But hundreds of angry neighbours gathered outside the girl's home last week demanding action in a case raising new concerns about religious extremism in this country.

Some human rights officials and media reports said the girl was mentally handicapped. Police gave conflicting reports of her age as 11 and 16.

Under Pakistan's blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad or defiling the Qur'an can face life in prison or even execution. Critics say the laws are often misused to harass non-Muslims.

Police put the girl in jail for 14 days on Thursday after neighbours said they believed a Christian girl had burned pages of a Qur'an, gathering outside her house in a poor outlying district of Islamabad, said police officer Zabi Ullah. He suggested she was being held for her protection.

"About 500 to 600 people had gathered outside her house in Islamabad and they were very emotional, angry and they might have harmed her if we had not quickly reacted," Ullah said.

Almost everyone in the girl's neighbourhood insisted she had burned the Qur'an's pages, even though police said they had found no evidence of it.

Some residents claimed they saw burnt pages of the Qur'an -- either at the local mosque or at the girl's house. Few people in Pakistan speak or read Arabic, so often assume anything they see with Arabic script is believed to be from the Qur'an, sometimes the only Arabic-language book people have seen.

But one police officer familiar with the girl's case said the matter would likely be dropped once the investigation is completed and the atmosphere is defused, saying there was "nothing much to the case."

A spokesman for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Farhatullah Babar, said the president asked the Interior Ministry to look into the case.

The U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the case "deeply disturbing. We urge the government of Pakistan to protect not just its religious minority citizens but also women and girls," she said.

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 21, 2012 A8

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