ISLAMABAD — In a rare move, a Pakistani judge granted bail Friday to a young, mentally challenged Christian girl accused of insulting Islam by burning pages of the religion’s holy book.
Activists who had pressed for the girl’s release welcomed the rare decision to grant bail in a blasphemy case. But defense lawyers expressed concern for her safety in a conservative country where blasphemy allegations often result in vigilante justice.
The girl’s plight has drawn new attention to Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, which critics claim are used to persecute minorities and settle personal vendettas.
The girl, who medical officials say is 14 years old, was arrested Aug. 16 after an angry mob surrounded her house in the capital, Islamabad, and accused her of burning pages from the Quran, an act punishable by life in prison. Her lawyer has denied the allegation.
The judge’s decision, which was handed down Friday in an Islamabad court, came after a Muslim cleric from her neighborhood was accused of planting evidence to incriminate the girl and could signal that the case will be thrown out entirely.
Police arrested the cleric after a follower from his mosque accused him of stashing pages of a Quran in the girl’s 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 arrest was applauded as a rare occurrence when blasphemy accusers are held responsible for false claims.
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. A Pakistani group that represents minorities said it would pay the bail.
“We feel that this is the real victory of truth and law," said Robinson Asghar, an aide to the Pakistani minister for national harmony.
The judge gave no reason for granting bail. Attorneys for the young girl argued that the accusations against the cleric had raised reasonable doubt about her culpability in the case.
Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, a lawyer representing the girl, said the bail would be paid today and then she would be freed. The girl, who was being held in a prison in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, has Down syndrome, according to her lawyers.
Chaudhry said the defense team would next move to have the entire case dismissed.