ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Pakistani court on Saturday dismissed charges against a cleric who had accused a young Christian girl of blasphemy and was arrested last year for allegedly forging evidence against her, his attorney said.
The blasphemy case had drawn new attention to Pakistan’s harsh laws on the subject, sections of which carry the death penalty or life imprisonment. The laws retain broad support across the country, where Islamic conservatism is on the rise, alongside extremism, and where many Muslims are highly sensitive about their faith.
The attorney, Wajid Gilani, said the district judge in Islamabad granted the motion to acquit Khalid Chishti after the judge ruled that the prosecution had not provided sufficient evidence.
Chishti was the imam at the mosque in the mixed Muslim and Christian neighborhood of Maherabadi in the Pakistani capital and had accused the young girl of burning pages of Islam’s holy book last year. He said a man had allegedly brought him a plastic bag containing some burned papers and ash, claiming the girl had been carrying them around.
The bag was submitted as evidence to the police, and the girl was subsequently arrested to pacify angry neighborhood residents.
But then the cleric himself was arrested and accused of planting pages of the Koran in the bag. The girl was released on bail after spending three weeks in jail and later found shelter in Canada, along with her family.
After the girl’s arrest, most of the other Christian families fled the Islamabad neighborhood where the incident happened, fearing retribution.
Meanwhile, there were contrary reports about the girl — some said she was 11 years old and has Down syndrome; a medical board said she was about 14 and that her mental age didn’t match her physical age.
Gilani insisted on his client’s innocence and claimed police had implicated Chishti on false charges.
The prosecutor and the investigating officer could not be reached for comment Saturday.
Rao Abdur Raheem, an attorney for the man who brought the initial complaint against the girl, wondered who had burned the Koran, since Chishti was exonerated and the girl had been released.
“My case is still there; blasphemy occurred, but who should we now blame for it?” Raheem asked.
Human rights activists say Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are too broad and vague and are often used by people trying to settle scores with rivals or target religious minorities, who make up 5 percent of Pakistan’s 180 million people.
Few leaders in this predominantly Muslim country have shown willingness to tackle the contentious issue, especially after two prominent politicians who criticized the blasphemy law were murdered in recent years. One of the politicians was shot by his own bodyguard, who then attracted adoring crowds.