Pakistan gets this case right
It was a welcome change from the usual dreary story: a Christian or a Hindu Pakistani accused of blasphemy on flimsy grounds, tried, and sentenced to prison - or found innocent, set free and then murdered by some Muslim fanatic. This time was different.
The victim this time was a 14-year-old Christian girl, Rimsa Masih, who is believed to have Down syndrome. She was stopped by a young Muslim man who found the half-burned remnants of a book that allegedly included verses from the Koran in her carrier bag. He told the local imam, who called the police, and she was arrested.
This kind of story usually ends badly in Pakistan. Two years ago, for example, a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was arrested for insulting the Prophet Muhammed while arguing with fellow farm workers. She was sentenced to death by hanging, but it was such a manifest injustice that the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, publicly called for the repeal of the blasphemy law. He was assassinated by his own bodyguard in January, 2011.
The bodyguard was tried for murder and convicted, but he was treated as a hero by many Pakistanis, and the judge who sent him to prison had to flee the country. Two months later the only Christian member of Pakistan's cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also shot dead when he spoke out against the blasphemy laws. Since then, almost nobody has dared to criticise them.
Asia Bibi remains in prison awaiting execution. Her entire family, including her five children, live in hiding and cannot work or go to school. And while the higher courts would once have thrown out her conviction - they have overturned hundreds of sentences for blasphemy imposed by lower courts that were too vulnerable to local pressures - she can no longer even be confident of that.
So the outlook seemed grim for Rimsa Masih when she was arrested last month - but then the imam who had called the police, Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chisti, was arrested for doctoring the evidence. His own deputy had seen him adding pages from the Koran to the young Christian's bag.
“I asked him what he was doing,” the deputy told a television station, “and he said this is the evidence against them [the local Christians] and this is how we can get them out from this area.”
Two other witnesses came forward against Chisti, and Hafiz Mohammed Ashrafi, the chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, a body of senior Muslim clerics, declared that “our heads are bowed with shame for what Chisti did.”
Ashrafi added that Chisti was acting on behalf of a group who wanted to drive out the Christian minority in the area.
They have already succeeded: some 300 Christian families have fled in fear for their lives, and they probably won't be returning.
Bail is not normally granted in blasphemy cases, but on September 8, Rimsa Masih was freed on bail, and a military helicopter lifted her out of the prison yard and into hiding. And Paul Bhatti, the Minister for National Harmony, whose brother and predecessor Shahbaz was murdered last year, broke a political taboo by explaining why ordinary Pakistanis are more hostile to the religious minorities in their midst than most Muslims elsewhere.
“It is not just a religious problem,” Bhatti said. “It's a caste factor, because [the victims] belong to the poorest and most marginalised people. Unfortunately they are Christians, and this caste system creates lots of problems.”
Islam teaches the equality of all believers, but the caste system is alive and kicking in Pakistan. Go far enough back, and almost all Pakistani Muslims are descended from Hindus - and when those Hindu communities converted to Islam, they retained their ideas and prejudices about caste.
This was particularly disheartening for groups at the bottom of the caste pecking order who had hoped that Islam would free them. When the British empire arrived in the area, therefore, it was the poorest and most despised section of the population who converted to Christianity.
So everybody knows that most Christians are really “untouchables”. The argument that got Asia Bibi in trouble, for example, broke out when some of her Muslim fellow workers refused to drink the water she had fetched because Christians were “unclean”.
The Hindu minority is mostly just as low-caste as the Christians, and equally vulnerable. Together they are only 6 million out of 187 million Pakistanis, but they account for the vast majority of blasphemy accusations. In many cases, accusations are merely a convenient weapon for Muslims engaged in land disputes and other quarrels with minority groups.
Maybe the Pakistani government has finally found the nerve to deal with this corrupt law and to protect its victims. The Rimsa Masih case is a hopeful sign. But Pakistan still has a long way to go before all of its citizens are really equal under the law.
* Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.