By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife with reports from Pakistan
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– A court in Islamabad on Saturday, September 1, postponed the bail hearing for a jailed Pakistani Christian girl accused of “blasphemy against Islam”, despite mounting international pressure to release her amid concerns she is mentally impaired.
Judge Muhammad Azam Khan said he adjourned the case of Rimsha Masih, who could face the death penalty, to at least Monday, September 3, citing concerns over the procedure.
He asked police to investigate a bail application made on her behalf, after prosecutors claimed “paperwork had not been signed by the girl or her mother.”
It came a day after she was brought to an Islamabad court, escorted by police and covered in a white sheet to protect her identity.
On Friday, August 31, Pakistani police won permission to hold her for a further two weeks, but the girl’s defense team had hoped she would be released as early as Saturday, September 1, on bail.
Masih was taken into custody last month after angry neighbors and others surrounded the girl’s house in Islamabad and accused her of burning pages inscribed with verses from the Koran, deemed a holy book by Muslims.
Christians said she may have been burning papers from the garbage for cooking.
Rimsha “could not have known she burned the textbook as she can not read,” added Farrukh H. Saif, executive director of Pakistani rights group World Vision In Progress (WVIP), in comments to BosNewsLife.
However a lawyer representing the accuser has challenged a medical report released earlier this week that said the girl is 14 years old and mentally impaired, with some observers saying she suffers of Down’s Syndrome.
Earlier reports said she was 11, but doctors apparently determined the girl is a young teenager.
In Pakistan public records aren’t as organized as in several Western nations, especially not for Christians like Masih, who reportredly grew up in an impoverished slum area of Islamabad.
Speaking to media outside the court, Rimsha’s lawyer Tahir Naveed Chaudhry accused prosecutors and lawyers for her accuser of delaying tactics.
“The medical report has declared her an underage person with low IQ. How can she commit blasphemy? She is innocent and should be released,” he said.
The Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), which supports Christians “persecuted” for their faith in Pakistan, said while Rimsha is “a small helpless child” she has “by the grace of God…done what no powerful leader has managed to do.”
Rimsha, CLAAS added, “put the spotlight of the world on the plight of Christians in Pakistan” showing “the whole world how Christians here are being treated”.
CLAAS said she has “persuaded” the international community “to speak about the injustice she is experiencing and the tyranny of the blasphemy laws, and she has united the people of the world who believe in human rights and a common humanity.”
Representatives of the European Union and human-rights activists are among those calling for the girl’s immediate release from police custody.
The United States has called Masih’s case “deeply disturbing” and urged Pakistan’s government to protect not just its religious minority citizens, but also women and girls.
Prominent Muslim clerics in Pakistan and the country’s president have called for an impartial probe into her case.
Rights activists claim the blasphemy legislation in Pakistan has been used to harass religious minorities and settle personal scores.
“Thousands of Christians” living in Masih’s neighborhood left the area fearing reprisals from Muslims angry over blasphemy, according to WVIP investigators. Several Christian homes were reportedly burned and at least two churches attacked in recent days.
Last year two prominent Pakistani politicians were killed for criticizing the country’s blasphemy law.
Blashemy remains a very sensitive subject in Pakistan, where 97 percent of the 180 million population are Muslims, and allegations of insulting Islam or prophet Mohammad often prompt a furious public reaction.
Christians are the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Pakistan.