ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Under heavy security, a Christian girl accused of blasphemy was released from a Pakistani jail Saturday and flown by government helicopter to be reunited with her family three weeks after a mob threatened to set her on fire for allegedly desecrating the Koran.
The girl’s release, after a court granted her bail Friday, was the latest development in a case that has exposed the potential for abuse of the Muslim-majority nation’s anti-blasphemy laws. Critics say allegations are frequently concocted to persecute religious minorities and settle personal scores.
The girl, said to be 14, could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted. Judge Mohammad Azam Khan set her bail at 1 million rupees, or $10,500, a huge sum for most Pakistanis.
Human rights advocates and a coalition of prominent Muslim clerics have applauded Pakistan’s government for coming to the girl’s defense. Pakistan’s interior minister, Rehman Malik, all but pronounced the girl innocent. He said the accused never left her home on the day three weeks ago when a young man claimed that he saw her carrying burnt pages of the Koran in a trash bag in her village outside Islamabad.
Her defense team is pushing to have the case dismissed. Officials said the girl, who was detained in Rawalpindi’s Adiala high-security prison, would join her family at a safe, undisclosed location.
In the past, officials have been reticent about speaking out against the blasphemy laws, but this case is unusual not only because of the girl’s age but also because of reports that she is mentally disabled.
Malik, who delivered a report on the case to the Pakistani Senate on Friday, said that although the defendant is 14, “her mental state is 7 years and she hasn’t the mental capacity beyond a child of that age.”
After word of her alleged crime spread through the mixed Muslim-Christian community where her family lives, a mob threatened to burn the girl alive. Police later said that they arrested her for her own safety.
Last week, the imam of the neighborhood mosque was arrested after a witness accused him of mixing pages of a Koran into the bag of ashes that the girl carried. Christian residents said he planted the evidence as part of a campaign to get Christians to leave the community. Several hundred have fled since the girl’s arrest.
The imam, who is under investigation on suspicion of blasphemy, denies the allegations.
In court Friday, the girl’s attorney, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, said the girl should be treated according to juvenile law and released on bail.
“This incident has brought a bad name to Pakistan around the world, and the country’s reputation has been damaged,” he said.
Rao Abdul Rahim, the opposing counsel, maintained that the girl was 16 and had confessed to burning the holy book.
“The court has no other option but to award [her] with due punishment,” he said.
Pakistani human rights leaders praised Khan’s decision to grant bail.
“The fact is that this child should not have been behind bars at all,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “All charges against her should be dropped, and Pakistan’s criminal justice system should instead concentrate on holding her accuser accountable for inciting violence against the child and members of the local Christian community.”
One million people have signed an online petition appealing for the girl’s release, according to Avaaz, an advocacy group that has quoted her father as saying she has “mental disabilities and often isn’t in control of her actions.”
“We are a poor Christian family witnessing mob fury over my daughter’s case,” the father said, according to Avaaz. “And many other families have faced similar intimidation, forcing them to either flee or live in fear.”
Last year, militants assassinated Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic who was serving as Pakistan’s minority affairs minister and was supporting changes to the blasphemy laws.
Two months earlier, another critic of the laws, Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer, was gunned down by one of his security guards. After the guard confessed, he was celebrated by many Pakistanis for defending Islam.