Christian girl with Down syndrome could face death penalty over burning of Islamic text in Pakistan

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A Christian girl with Down syndrome could be punished by death in Pakistan after she was spotted holding burned pages of Islamic text in public, activists and police say.

The girl, identified by police as Rimsha, was arrested on blasphemy charges and is being detained in Islamabad ahead of a court appearance before the end of the month, AFP reports.

Defaming Islam, the Koran or the Prophet Muhammed is a capital offense in Pakistan.

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari has ordered his Interior Ministry to investigate the arrest, the Los Angeles Times reports.

After the incident, religious tensions and rallies involving Muslim protesters forced Christians to temporarily flee Mehrabad, the Islamabad neighborhood where Rimsha resides, a senior official of All Pakistan Minorities Alliance told AFP.

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A Pakistani police officer, Zabi Ullah, said Monday that the girl was arrested Thursday after hundreds of neighbors, angry over reports she had allegedly burned religious papers, gathered outside her house.

"About 500-600 people had gathered outside her house in Islamabad, and they were very emotional, angry, and they might have harmed her if we had not quickly reacted," he said.

The Women’s Action Forum, a Pakistan rights group, blasted the arrest and accused police of not letting lawyers meet Rimsha in custody.

"WAF is outraged at the total inhumanity of the men who lodged the First Information Report in the police," a spokeswoman for the group told AFP.

But some police officials doubt reports that Rimsha burned parts of the Koran.

Qasim Niazi said when the girl was brought to the police station she had a shopping bag that contained various religious and Arabic-language papers that had been partly burned, but no Koran.

Another police officer said the matter would likely be dropped once the investigation is completed and the atmosphere is defused, saying there was "nothing much to the case." He did not want to be identified due to the sensitivity of the case.

There also are varying reports on Rimsha's age and whether she is mentally handicapped. Zabi Ullah, a Pakistan police officer, said she is 16, while other officials have said she is either 12 or 11. Niazi said that when the girl was brought to the police station she was scared and unable to speak normally, but he did not know whether she is mentally handicapped.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.