The mullah at the centre of the furore surrounding a young Pakistani Christian girl facing a death sentence for blasphemy has been accused of deliberately framing her by planting burnt Islamic texts.
In an extraordinary development in the case, which has attracted international condemnation, Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti arrived in court blindfolded and under tight security after being arrested late on Saturday night. The judge ruled he should be held in police custody for two weeks.
Police say two of his colleagues gave statements that he added pages from the Qu’ran to strengthen the case against Rimsha Masih, who has been in custody for two weeks after she was accused by Muslim neighbours in her Islamabad neighbourhood of burning the holy book.
The crime is particularly serious under the country’s much-criticised blasphemy laws and offenders can be sentenced to death.
Maulvi Zubair and two other assistants at a mosque near Rimsha’s house told police Chishti deliberately added pages from the Qu’ran to some charred refuse she was carrying.
Zubair is said to have objected at the time but Chishti insisted it was the only way to get rid of Christians in the area.
Rimsha’s lawyers maintain that she did not commit any crime. They say that not only is she only 13 years old, and should be tried as a juvenile, she also has Down’s syndrome and therefore “cannot commit such a crime”, according to her bail application.
Chishti has been outspoken about his dislike of the hundreds of Christian families who live in the area, even appearing on a popular national television show to complain that the noise made by Christian worshippers had disturbed Muslim residents.
He also welcomed the departure of most of the Christians from the area following the furore surrounding the arrest of Rimsha last month. With passions running high in the community – hundreds of people demonstrated outside her house, reportedly demanding the right to burn the young girl to death – most Christians fled the area.
“We are not upset the Christians have left and we will be pleased if they don’t come back,” Chishti told the Guardian on 18 August.
Tahir Naveed Chaudhry from the All Pakistan Minority Committee said Rimsha’s lawyers had always maintained the evidence was planted. “And now it is proved that the whole story was only designed to dislocate the Christian people,” he said.
“[Chishti] must be prosecuted under the blasphemy law as it will set a precedent against anyone else who tries to misuse that law.”
The blasphemy laws have been widely abused as a powerful way to settle scores and disputes. People have been sentenced to long jail terms on extremely weak evidence, some of which cannot even be properly examined in court for fear of repeating any blasphemy.
But public criticism of the laws is itself dangerous – two prominent politicians have been assassinated by religious hardliners after speaking out.
Mumtaz Qadri, a former security guard who last year gunned down his boss, Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab at the time, is regarded by many Pakistanis as a hero for killing a man who had publicly criticised the blasphemy laws and backed a Christian woman who was sentenced to death