ISLAMABAD – A Muslim cleric is accused of stashing pages of a Quran in a Christian girl's bag to make it seem like she burned the Islamic holy book, a surprising twist in a case that caused an international outcry over the country's strict blasphemy laws.
Pakistani police arrested Khalid Chishti late Saturday after a member of the cleric's mosque accused the imam of planting evidence as a way to push the Christians out of the neighborhood. Chishti denied the charges Sunday while being led to court in shackles, wearing a white blindfold.
"I have not done anything wrong. This is all fabrication," he defiantly told reporters.
The imam's arrest could release the girl, who supporters say is mentally handicapped, out of prison, where she faces a life sentence if convicted of charges she desecrated the Quran. A bail hearing is scheduled for Monday.
But Christians who fled the neighborhood when the girl was arrested worry about the use of laws that critics say are often abused to settle scores or target minorities.
"We all are suffering," said Somera Ashraf, a Christian woman from the girl's neighborhood.
Ashraf and her family fled the neighborhood with many other Christians when the blasphemy allegations came to light, fearing retribution. She only recently returned but still doesn't feel safe.
Police said Chishti planted pages of a Quran in a shopping bag containing burned papers and ash that had been carried by the Christian girl. The bag was then submitted as evidence to the police.
A member of his mosque came forward Saturday — more than two weeks after the girl's arrest — and accused the imam of planting the evidence, said the investigating officer, Munir Jaffery.
The case has shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the punishments for violating Pakistan's blasphemy laws and caused an uproar in the country, largely because of the girl's age and questions about her mental capacity.
The girl's supporters say she is 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.
The Associated Press does not generally identify juveniles under 18 who are accused of crimes and is withholding her name.
The girl's lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, said the imam's arrest proves his client is innocent and said he will likely move to throw the case out on Monday.
Rarely if ever are people who bring blasphemy charges investigated or arrested for misuse of the law.
Ali Dayan Hasan, head of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, said the decision to act against the cleric was "unprecedented."
"What it indicates is a genuine attempt at investigation rather than blaming the victim, which is what normally happens in blasphemy cases," said Hasan. "They are actually taking a look at incitement to violence and false allegations. It is a welcome and positive development."
Few leaders have been willing to tackle the contentious issue after two prominent politicians who criticized the law were murdered last year. One was shot by his own bodyguard, who then attracted adoring crowds.
Outside the Islamabad mosque where the imam worked, local Muslim residents said the charges against their religious leader were trumped up by a fellow mosque member who had caused problems in the past.
If anything, they said there hasn't been enough punishment of people accused of blasphemy, residents said.
"There is no problem in the blasphemy laws and its procedures," said Malik Qadir.
"Whenever there is a blasphemy case in Pakistan, we never see any punishment. This is just a wrong policy of the government," said Hafiz Tariq Mahmood.
Even the girl's lawyer, Chaudhry, said he believed in the law and only wanted to make sure it wasn't misused.
Many local residents said they still believed the girl to be guilty, and maintained that she was old enough to be responsible for her alleged crimes.
A court hearing is scheduled Monday to decide whether to grant the girl bail, a decision that's already been delayed twice.
A lawyer for the man who brought the complaint against the girl, Rao Abdur Raheem, claimed police were under pressure from higher-ups to soften the case.
"This deliberate twist in the case is aimed at discouraging complaints under the blasphemy law," he said in court Sunday.
Most of the Christian families fled the Islamabad neighborhood where the incident happened, fearing retribution after the arrest. Ashraf said she is still so worried for her children's safety that she won't let them go to school or even the nearby market.
She said she returned because she had few options.
"Wherever we went people were gathering and saying, "No Christians can live here,'" she said.
Associated Press writers Sebastian Abbot and Zarar Khan contributed to this report.
Rebecca Santana can be reached at http://twitter.com/@ruskygal