Children sit in front of the locked family house of Rimsha Masih, a Pakistani Christian girl accused of blasphemy, on the outskirts of Islamabad. (Photo: Reuters)
The head of Pakistan's leading body of Muslim clerics Tuesday came to the defence of Rimsha Masih, a young Christian girl accused of blasphemy, demanding her case be handled fairly and impartially.
Allama Tahir Ashrafi, chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, said if Rimsha, accused of burning papers containing verses from the Koran, were found to be innocent, her accusers should face justice.
The cleric said protesters who demonstrated to demand punishment for Rimsha, who reportedly suffers from Down's Syndrome, were following the "law of the jungle".
Rimsha has been held since August 16 under the Islamic republic's strict blasphemy laws, prompting concern from Western governments and the Vatican and anger from rights groups.
Amnesty International has urged Pakistan to reform its blasphemy laws and protect Ramisha, who is between 10 and 13 years old, according to some reports.
President Asif Ali Zardari on Monday, 20 August, ordered officials to explain the arrest, while Christians fled the neighbourhood of Mehrabad in fear at Muslim anger over the incident.
Polly Truscott, Amnesty International's South Asia director welcomed Zardari's response but warned it would count for little unless there were "greater efforts to reform the blasphemy laws to ensure they cannot be used maliciously to settle disputes or enable private citizens to take matters into their own hands."
French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran on Saturday, 25 August, went to the defence of the young Pakistani girl accused of blasphemy, stressing that she "cannot read or write."
Neighbours said Rimsha had burned papers collected from a garbage pile for cooking in her family home and someone alerted the local cleric after spotting the remains being thrown out as rubbish.
Tauran said that Rimsha "is a girl who cannot read or write and collects garbage to live on and picked up the fragments of the book which was in the middle of the rubbish."
On Monday Rimsha was taken from prison to hospital for tests to determine how old she was, a senior doctor told AFP, after conflicting reports about her age.
Around 120 uniformed police officers guarded the hospital, the doctor said.
Ashrafi urged the government to take action to protect Christians in the poor Islamabad suburb of Mehrabad, where Rimsha lives, and encourage Christian families who fled in fear after the incident to return.
"This is inhuman that those who have nothing to do with the case or are not a party to it are also being harassed," Ashrafi told AFP.
"It is just like the law of jungle that 500 people approached a police station and got a report forcibly lodged with the police."
Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive subject in the nation of 180 million people, 97 percent of whom are Muslims, and those convicted of defaming Islam or desecrating the Koran can face life imprisonment or even the death penalty.
Human rights activists have warned the laws are often used to settle personal vendettas and last year two prominent politicians were assassinated for speaking out against the legislation.
Ashrafi said Rimsha's case should be a watershed for Pakistan's blasphemy laws.
"We demand an impartial and thorough investigation into the case. Strict action should be taken against all those accusing the girl if she is found innocent," he said.
"The government should make this case an example so that nobody will dare misuse the blasphemy law in future."
A medical examination on Monday determined Rimsha's age as "around 14", the doctor at Pakistan's Federal Government Services Hospital told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Rimsha's lawyer Tahir Naveed Chaudhry said they had applied to have her case proceed under juvenile law.
At a brief hearing in the case on Tuesday, Judge Raja Jawad Hassan adjourned proceedings until Thursday after defence lawyers submitted a bail application.