ISLAMABAD – A judge hearing the case of a Pakistani Christian girl accused of blasphemy delayed her bail hearing on Thursday after a lawyer questioned a medical report putting the girl's age at 14, suggesting the government had tried to influence it.
The new challenge quashed the possibility that the controversy surrounding the case would be swiftly defused and the girl set free. The case has focused attention on Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws that can result in life in prison or even death.
Christians in her Islamabad neighborhood left the area en masse as soon as the accusations surfaced, fearing retribution from their Muslim neighbors as the case has inflamed religious tensions in this Muslim majority country.
Questions have been raised about her age, whether she is mentally impaired, what exactly she was burning and why. A medical report submitted Tuesday put her age at 14, which would have moved the case to the more lenient juvenile justice system. It said her mental state was even less than that of a 14-year-old, which raised questions about whether she had the capacity to understand her actions.
But a lawyer representing a man accusing the girl of burning the Quran challenged the validity of the report in a court hearing in Islamabad. The room was crowded with lawyers, members of the Christian community and journalists, all standing pressed against the judge's bench as he listened to the lawyers.
Rao Abdur Raheem said the report was ordered by a top city official and completed even before the judge himself ordered it to be carried out. Saying the process was "unduly favoring the accused," he asked the judge to reject it.
Speaking after the hearing, Raheem said supporters of the victim were trying to turn this case into an international issue along the lines of Asia Bibi. The case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death in 2010 for insulting Islam, gathered massive international attention and criticism for Pakistan's tough anti-blasphemy laws.
The lawyer said the girl had confessed to burning part of a Quran and said he would seek the maximum punishment. He said no one should be allowed to hurt the sentiments of Muslims by desecrating their holy book or by insulting their religious personalities.
"If you burn me, I will forgive you, but if you burn our Quran, then I will fight a legal battle to seek maximum punishment for anyone doing this act," he said. "We will not accept any such thing," he said.
Under the Pakistani legal system, everyday citizens can bring a court case against someone simply by hiring a lawyer. A state prosecutor was also in the courtroom, as were two defense lawyers for the girl, but the proceeding was dominated by Abdur Raheem.
Critics of Pakistan's blasphemy laws say they can be used to settle vendettas or seek retribution. Many of Pakistan's minorities, including Christians, live in fear of being accused of blasphemy.
People accused of the crime, even those that aren't convicted, often face vigilante justice by outraged Pakistanis. A Pakistani man accused of blasphemy in July was dragged from a police station in the center of the country, beaten to death and his body set on fire.
Few are willing to tackle the explosive issue after two prominent politicians who criticized the law were murdered last year. One was killed by his own bodyguard, who then attracted adoring crowds. The Pakistani government has been largely silent on the girl's case. Immediately following her arrest, President Asif Ali Zardari issued a statement calling for an investigation but has said nothing since then.
A defense lawyer for the girl, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, said the report prepared by a seven-member medical board had not favored the girl, and the government had not tried to influence the doctors in any way.
"We will try our best to get her freed," he said.
The new bail hearing is scheduled for Saturday while the judge seeks clarification on how the report was conducted.