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Judge grants bail to Christian girl accused of blasphemy in Pakistan

Aug. 30, 2012: Pakistanis walk in a Christian neighborhood in Islamabad, Pakistan.AP

A Pakistani judge granted bail Friday to a young, mentally challenged Christian girl accused of insulting Islam for burning pages of the religion's holy book. Rights activists welcomed the decision after calling for her release since she was arrested three weeks ago.

The case has focused attention on Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws, which activists claim are used to persecute minorities and settle personal vendettas.

Judge Mohammed Azam Khan set bail at 1 million Pakistani rupees, or about $10,500, a significant sum in a country where many families live on only a few dollars a day. The girl's impoverished family may need outside financial support to free her.

The young girl, who is reported to be 14 years old and suffering from some form of mental impairment, was arrested after an angry mob showed up at a police station in her neighborhood in Islamabad and accused her of burning pages from the Koran, an act punishable by life in prison under the country's harsh blasphemy laws. Her lawyer has denied the allegation.

In an unusual twist, police arrested a Muslim cleric from her neighborhood a week ago after a follower from his mosque accused him of stashing pages of a Koran in her bag to make it seem as if she burned them. He allegedly planted the evidence to push Christians out of the neighborhood and is now being investigated for blasphemy himself. He has denied the allegation.

The head of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, Ali Dayan Hasan, praised the judge's decision to grant the young girl bail.

"The fact is that this child should not have been behind bars at all," Hasan said. "All charges against her should be dropped, and 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."

Hasan added, "Human Rights Watch hopes that the blatant abuse that has come to light in this case will lead to a considered re-examination of the law, and all stake-holders in Pakistan will actively seek to end frequent abuses perpetrated under cover of blasphemy allegations."