The Pakistani Christian girl arrested for defaming the Koran is to be released on bail, after a Muslim cleric was accused of framing her.
Rimsha Masih, believed to be 14, has been held in prison since she was arrested three weeks ago for allegedly burning Islamic relgious texts, in a case that caused an international outcry.
A bail hearing on Friday decided to release her after hearing that a Muslim cleric was detained on suspicion of planting evidence to frame her. Pakistani authorities on Sunday arrested Khalid Chishti for allegedly planting pages of a Koran in a shopping bag containing burned papers that Masih was carrying, said an investigating officer in the case.
Masih, who doctors assessed as having some form of learning difficulty, may be in danger if she is set free and remains in her home country. While her arrest triggered protests around the world, demonstrations in Pakistan had the support of a minority.
Even the allegation of causing offence to Islam can mean a death sentence in Pakistan, and those charged under the country's anti-blasphemy law are sometimes lynched by the public, despite being found innocent by the courts. Bail is not normally granted in blasphemy cases, but Rimsha Masih's lawyers argued that she is a juvenile.
When released, Masih is expected to be reunited with her family at a secret location, said Robinson Asghar, an aide to minister for national harmony, who added there are no plans to send the teenager abroad.
In Masih's village on the edge of Islamabad, some said they were disappointed that she had not been sentenced. "This is wrong. She burned the Koran," resident Ijaz Sarwar told Reuters.
Saddam Hussein, 18, said he had sympathy for the cleric accused of framing Masih. "If she is freed, the maulvi (cleric) should be freed as well," he said.
Bail is reported to amount to the equivalent of $10,000.
More than a million people worldwide have signed a petition started by Masih's father for her release. Activists and human rights groups say that vague terminology has led to the anti-blasphemy law's misuse, and that it discriminates against minority groups.
Christians, who make up four per cent of Pakistan's population of 180 million, have been especially concerned about the blasphemy law, saying it offers them no protection. Convictions hinge on witness testimony and are often linked to vendettas, they complain.
Human Rights Watch welcomed Masih's release and urged authorities to consider reforming the law.
"This child should not have been behind bars at all. All charges against her should be dropped," it said in a statement. "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."
Last year, Punjab province governor Salman Taseer was shot dead by his bodyguard for suggesting the law be reformed. Lawyers hailed Taseer's killer as a hero, tossing rose petals at him after he was arrested. Taseer had been defending a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was jailed on blasphemy charges. She is still in jail on death row.
Two months after Taseer's murder, minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was killed by the Taliban for demanding changes to the law.
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