ISLAMABAD – A Pakistani court Friday ordered a Christian girl accused of blasphemy to be held in prison for two more weeks as police finish their investigation and decide whether to charge her, her lawyer and police said, the latest step in a case that has stoked controversy at home and abroad.
The case has focused attention on Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws that can result in prison or even death for insulting Islam. Human rights activists have long criticized the laws and said they are used to persecute non-Muslims and settle personal scores.
The court's decision was procedural, since the girl's initial two-week detention ended Thursday, said her lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry. He hopes she will be freed on bail at a hearing Saturday while the investigation continues, he said.
Local TV video from the court showed the girl covered in a white sheet to protect her identity and surrounded by police, including two female constables.
This case generated an uproar because of reports that the girl was as young as 11 and suffered from Down syndrome. A neighbor has accused her of burning pages from Islam's holy book, the Quran, but her lawyer has denied the allegation.
A medical report released this week said the girl was 14 and that her mental state did not correspond with her age. The report could mean the girl will be tried in the more lenient juvenile court system, which could possibly defuse the highly contentious case.
During an initial bail hearing Thursday, the lawyer for the man who accused the girl of blasphemy asked that the medical report be rejected, saying it unduly favored the accused. The judge delayed the hearing until Saturday to investigate the lawyer's accusations.
The Associated Press is withholding the girl's name because it does not generally identify underage suspects.
Police arrested the girl from her neighborhood in Islamabad over two weeks after an angry mob of several hundred appeared at a local police station, demanding action against her for alleged blasphemy. Police said at the time that they took her into custody partly to protect her from potential harm.
People accused of blasphemy, even those who 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.
Christians in the girl's neighborhood left the area en masse as soon as the accusations surfaced, fearing retribution from their Muslim neighbors.
On Monday, the All Pakistan Ulema Council, an umbrella organization of Muslim clerics, held a news conference together with the Pakistan Interfaith League and called for an investigation into whether the girl was wrongly accused and what role religious extremism played.
The head of the clerics' council, Maulana Tahir-ul-Ashrafi, is seen as close to the government. It's unclear whether other government officials or clerics will speak out, since blasphemy is an extremely sensitive and potentially dangerous subject in Pakistan.
Two prominent politicians who criticized the blasphemy laws were murdered last year. One was killed by his own bodyguard, who then attracted adoring crowds.
Immediately following the girl's arrest, President Asif Ali Zardari issued a statement calling for an investigation, but he has said nothing since then.