A Pakistani Court has acquitted a Muslim cleric accused of framing a mentally-challenged Christian girl of violating the country's blasphemy laws. Cleric, Khalid Jadoon, was freed after six of eight eyewitnesses, who had testified to seeing him plant evidence on the girl, suddenly retracted their statements.
Last August, teenager Rimsha Masih was arrested for breaking Pakistan's blasphemy laws, after she was accused of burning pages of the Quran. As international criticism grew over her arrest, evidence mounted that Jadoon had deliberately inserted pages of the Quran into the fire himself so that he could accuse the Christian girl of blasphemy and use the charge as a pretext to drive out Christians from the area.
Masih was ultimately acquitted of blasphemy chargers in November, but her family was forced to take asylum in Canada in March.
Masih's attorney, Tahir Naveed, had anticipated an acquittal for the cleric, citing ineffective policing as well as the volatile religious and political climate.
"The court freed Jadoon because the police failed to assure the witnesses that they would not be harmed," Naveed told Morning Star News. "Moreover, the trial court judges are also under immense pressure when hearing blasphemy cases."
While witnesses attributed their original statements on police "coercion," Christian rights activist Allama Tahir Ashrafi argued that after the government had refused to ensure them protection, witnesses had acted out of fear.
"Three days before the witnesses retracted their statements, an extremist group supporting Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of former Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer, held a rally in Rawalpindi wherein they publicly issued life threats to the witnesses in Rimsha case," Ashrafi told Morning Star News. "I believe that the police and administration are equally responsible for poor prosecution in the case."
The court announced its decision just days after Pakistani civil society groups and human rights organizations took to the streets for a "day of mourning" to call for an end to anti-blasphemy laws in the country, which according to the Pakistan Christian Post, often serve as justifications for intimidation, violence and terror.
"An accusation of blasphemy commonly subjects the accused, police, lawyers, and judges to harassment, threats, attacks and extra judicial killing. An accusation is sometimes the prelude to vigilantism and rioting as it happened in Gojra and Lahore. Those who are accused of blasphemy including their family members have to face many hardships and to move from one place to other for their safety of lives and this is not for years rather it is for whole life," it said.
Despite minority anger toward blasphemy laws, Pakistanis who support the law have create a chilling climate for those who would speak out against them. Politicians Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, who used their platforms to speak out against blasphemy laws, were both assassinated in 2011.
"During Rimsha's case, the Islamabad High Court ruled that misuse of the blasphemy laws had brought a bad name to Pakistan and Islam," said Ashrafi. "I ask that if Rimsha was innocent and now Jadoon has also been acquitted of the charge, who are the real faces behind this case? Shouldn't the trial court judge have asked police to unveil the perpetrators of the case? The fact is that everyone fears the extremist forces and are not ready to counter them."