Rimsha Masih, aged between 11 and 14, and said to have some degree of mental impairment, has now been in a high-security jail since August 16. She is reportedly terrified by her situation.
The child from a Christian family background was accused of burning pages of the Noorani Qaida (a textbook used for teaching children the Koran). Rimsha and her mother were severely beaten by an angry mob and Rimsha was then handed to police by a local Muslim cleric who has instructed a lawyer to pursue a “blasphemy” case against her. Rimsha was denied bail and last week the prosecution further delayed her hearing by requesting additional medical examinations in dispute of her age.
Sonja Eggerickx, President of IHEU, commented, “It is rightly said that ‘blasphemy’ is a victimless crime. ‘Blasphemy laws’, however, are not victimless.
“Often, the victims of ‘blasphemy laws’ are members of religious or non-religious minorities who either criticize some practice of a dominant religion, or simply state their own views openly. This is an unnecessary curtailment of freedom of expression.
“However, the victims of ‘blasphemy laws’ also include those, like Rimsha Masih, who are falsely accused of anti-religious speech or acts of symbolic criticism, such as burning religious scriptures. These latter victims were not attempting to exercise freedom of expression in the first place, nevertheless they are the victims of bad law.
“It is painfully obvious that many blasphemy accusations are unfounded and malicious, used to harass and persecute religious minorities, to settle personal vendettas, or to scapegoat individuals. In just the last few months Pakistan has seen another example of a mob reportedly two-thousand strong descend on a police station in Bahawalpur, violently beating a young man, and then either burning him alive or burning his corpse, simply because of an substantiated accusation of blasphemy. Like Rimsha Mashi he was reportedly mentally subnormal. Like Rimsha Mashi he was the victim of mob violence, legitimized by a bad law.
“These violent responses are deeply rooted in social prejudice and religious culture, but they are also validated by a repressive ‘blasphemy law’ over which political leaders do have direct control, and they must take control.”
Those accused of blasphemy, whether in response to acts of free expression, or simply false and malicious accusations as in Rimsha’s case, are not the only victims of ‘blasphemy laws’. Around 300 Christian families from Rimsha’s community have fled the neighbourhood to escape harassment and looting of their homes by the mob, some fearing a repeat of the Gorjra attacks. (In 2009 another mob attacked and burned down the houses of Christian families in the town of Gorjra.)
Eggerickx continued, “In recent years the assassinations of Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer have shown that even political figures cannot speak out on ‘blasphemy’ without the threat of fatal reprisal.
“However, Rimsha’s case has galvanized Pakistani-led opposition to blasphemy, and we believe the time has come for a brave and unified stand. The Muslim leaders of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, in speaking out in solidarity with the Pakistan Interfaith League, have demonstrated that Muslim clerics and scholars can question ‘blasphemy laws’, the application of those laws, or specific accusations under those laws, and that to do so is both legitimate and morally right.
“Rimsha’s tragic, ongoing case must mark a turning point. Politicians, police and clerics must confront ‘blasphemy’ mobs in unison and without fear.
“Together they must also face down the malicious clerics and other individuals who often stir up and lead the mob. The cleric who handed Rimsha over to the police claimed she was “fully aware of what she was doing”, but he was not even present at the alleged crime. His accusation against her can only be a gross overstatement of his own knowledge, or itself a lie which he must be fully aware he was committing.
“We call on President Asif Ali Zardari to ensure the safety and freedom of Rimsha Marsih, the real victim of these absurd accusations.
“Furthermore we call on the President and the courts to ensure that her accusers must face justice. Humanist organisations contest ‘blasphemy laws’ in principle, which violate international human rights law and are used to suppress free expression and to persecute religious and non-religious minorities. While ‘blasphemy laws’ remain on the statute books, however, accusers must know that perpetuating false and malicious allegations, instigating physical assault, looting, and driving people away from their homes, are all acts with criminal implications under Pakistani law and must be pursued.”
Update (4 September): Soon after this statement was drafted, news broke that the cleric leading allegations against Rimsha Masih has been accused of framing her as an excuse to provoke anger against local Christians. The cleric Khalid Chishti was arrested and now faces possible ‘blasphemy’ charges himself for «desecrating the Koran», which he allegedly planted on Rimsha. While some may appreciate the irony in a ‘blasphemy’ charge against the cleric, IHEU remains steadfastly against ‘blasphemy laws’ in principle.
We welcome news that the accusations of false allegations by Chishti have been taken seriously by the authorities, we also note that his arrest for fabricating evidence in a ‘blasphemy’ case is unprecedented and that other high-profile clerics continue to come out in support of Rimsha. However, the Chishti case demonstrates not that ‘blasphemy laws’ have been «misused», but that they are inherently flawed; it is not merely that the social presumption of guilt in the case of ‘blasphemy’ accusations must end, but that ‘blasphemy laws’ themselves have always validated the persecution of minorities and the suppression of free expression. and that all such laws should be abolished. If Khalid Chishti is found guilty he may deserve a long prison sentence for the instigation of false accusations against a minor and for hate crimes on the basis of religion, but ‘blasphemy’ remains an oppressive concept and a bad law. Chishti may be charged with very serious offenses but neither he nor anyone should be punished for ‘blasphemy’, the very same oppressive code under which he was allegedly attempting to frame Rimsha.