Christian in Pakistan blasphemy case ruled a minor

Associated Press
Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, the lawyer of a Christian girl accused of blasphemy, talks to media after a court hearing in Islamabad, Pakistan on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012. Chaudhry said a report by a medical board investigating the age and mental state of the girl determined she was between 13 and 14. The girl was accused by a neighbor of burning pages from the Quran.  (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)
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ISLAMABAD (AP) — An official medical review of a Pakistani Christian girl accused of desecrating the Quran has determined that the girl is a minor, a lawyer for the girl said Tuesday.

The finding, which means the girl will be tried in the juvenile court system, could possibly defuse what has been a highly contentious case in Pakistan, where blasphemy can be punished with life in prison or even death.

The accusations against the girl have inflamed religious tensions in Pakistan, and sparked a mass exodus of Christians from the girl's neighborhood who feared retribution from their Muslim neighbors.

About 300 of the Christians who set up camp in a field outside the capital were evicted from the site Tuesday, and their makeshift church was burned down.

The attorney, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, said a report by a medical board investigating the age and mental state of the girl determined she was 14 years old.

He also said the board determined her mental state did not correspond to her age. It was not clear whether that meant she was mentally impaired. Some Pakistani media reports have said the girl has Down syndrome.

Chaudhry said a bail hearing has been scheduled for Thursday, and that he would move to dismiss the case after the hearing, saying there was "no solid evidence" against his client.

He said he saw his client Saturday in the Rawalpindi prison where she's being held and that she was "weeping and crying."

The Associated Press is withholding her name because it does not generally identify underage suspects.

The girl was accused by a neighbor of burning pages of a Quran, Islam's holy book. But many aspects of the case have been in dispute since the incident surfaced a little less than two weeks ago, including her age, whether she was mentally impaired and what exactly she was burning.

The lawyer said a birth certificate provided by the church put her age at eleven years old, but in the end the medical board determined she was 14. Generally, birth certificates must be issued by the Pakistani government to be considered legal documents.

The case has spotlighted once again Pakistan's troublesome blasphemy laws that critics say can be used to settle vendettas or seek retribution. Many of Pakistan's minorities, including Christians, live in fear of being accused of blasphemy.

Hundreds of Christian families have fled the neighborhood where the girl lived, fearing a backlash from their Muslim neighbors.

Over the weekend a group of about 300 cleared out a section of land in a forested part of an Islamabad neighborhood and built the skeleton of a church from branches, complete with a cross, and were using it to hold prayer services.

Christians in the area said Tuesday that in the middle of the night, people burned their makeshift church to the ground. Then the group was evicted from the site.

By midafternoon a group of about 150 Christians had gathered in the park a few hundred meters (yards) from the clearing where the church once stood. Many had nothing to eat until an aid group delivered some rice.

"We are helpless. What can we do? We are just sitting here," said Naseem Javed, who was holding her 3-year-old son in her arms. "They don't even want us to have a place to pray."

Residents from nearby houses gathered in the clearing where the makeshift church stood. One of them, Babar Minhas, said according to city regulations the land was supposed to be an open space of trees and grass and was not to be used as a settlement.

In a sign of their clear animosity toward the Christian group, he questioned whether any of them were even from the Islamabad neighborhood where the blasphemy case originated.

Once someone is labeled as a blasphemer, even if they are never convicted, they can face vigilante justice by outraged Pakistanis. In July, thousands of people dragged a Pakistani man accused of desecrating the Quran from a police station, beat him to death and set his body alight.

The potential public backlash has also deterred many from speaking out in favor of changing or repealing the blasphemy law. Last year two prominent politicians who criticized the law were murdered, one by his own bodyguard, who then attracted adoring mobs.

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Associated Press writers Zarar Khan and Asif Shahzad contributed to this report.

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Rebecca Santana can be reached at http://twitter.com/@ruskygal

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