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Pakistan imam held in 'blasphemy girl' case

ISLAMABAD--A Pakistani cleric who accused a young Christian girl of blasphemy in a case that sparked international concern was remanded in custody Sunday on suspicion of evidence-tampering and desecrating the Koran.

The girl, Rimsha, has been held in prison since being arrested in the poor Islamabad suburb of Mehrabad more than two weeks ago accused of burning papers containing verses from the Koran, in breach of Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws.

A medical report last week said she had a mental age of less than 14 and her case has prompted concern among Western governments and anger from rights groups who say Pakistan's strict blasphemy legislation is often abused to settle personal scores.

Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, the imam of the mosque in Rimsha's area, who first gave police the burned papers as evidence against her, was detained by police on Saturday evening.

“The imam was arrested after his deputy Maulvi Zubair and two others told a magistrate he added pages from the Koran to the burnt pages brought to him by a witness,” police investigator Munir Hussain Jaffri said.

Zubair and the two others, Mohammad Shahzad and Awais Ahmed, said they had urged Chishti not to interfere with the papers, Jaffri said.

“They protested that he should not add something to the evidence and he should give the evidence to the police as he got it and should not do this,” Jaffri said.

“But they said Chishti said, 'You know this is the only way to expel the Christians from this area.'”

On August 24 Chishti told AFP he thought Rimsha had burned the pages deliberately as part of a Christian “conspiracy” to insult Muslims, and said action should have been taken sooner to stop what he called their “anti-Islam activities” in Mehrabad.

Jaffri said the cleric was arrested at his home on Saturday under the blasphemy law.

“By putting these pages in the ashes he also committed desecration of the holy Quran and he is being charged with blasphemy,” he said.

Rimsha's lawyer Tahir Naveed Chaudhry said the case against her was fatally flawed.

“This development has created doubts and under the law, the benefit of the doubt is always given to the accused,” he told AFP.

“Now it has been fully proven that it was a conspiracy. We want that Rimsha should be acquitted immediately.”

Chishti, who arrived at court on Sunday blindfolded and handcuffed and guarded by armed police commandos, was remanded in custody for 14 days and will be held at the same jail as Rimsha.

Speaking to reporters, Chishti said the allegations against him were “concocted.”

Rao Abdur Raheem, the lawyer for Rimsha's accuser, her neighbor Hammad Malik, said the development was intended to “spoil” his case and he accused the authorities of interfering.

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A Pakistani policeman, second left, reprimands Islamic cleric Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, second right, after he attempted to shout slogans upon his arrival at a court in Islamabad, Pakistan, Sunday, Sept. 2.

(AFP)

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