A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department yesterday called the arrest of a young Pakistani girl in Islamabad on charges of blasphemy “deeply disturbing” and urged the government to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation.
In her daily press briefing on Monday, spokesperson Victoria Nuland welcomed reports that President Ali Asif Zardari had directed the Interior Ministry to review the arrest of the young girl, identified by local media as Rimsha Masih, whose age has been given as between 10 and 16 years in various media reports.
“We think that the president’s statement is very, very welcome. And we urge the government of Pakistan to protect not just its religious minority citizens, but also women and girls.”
Nuland further noted that “what is being touted as an abuse or an intentional act for religious purposes may, in fact, have been something else.”
Masih was arrested on Friday in a Christian enclave in Islamabad on suspicion of blasphemy, which can be punishable by death.
A report by the New York Times said a local cleric had accused Masih, who Pakistan media have said suffers from Down’s Syndrome, of possessing burned pages of a religious textbook used to teach the Koran to children.
Masih is reportedly being held at Adiyala jail in Rawalpindi.
Police investigator Zabhiullah Abbasi said Masih would be detained until August 25, after which she would be charged in court with blasphemy, according to a report by AFP, which further noted that she is being held in the same jail that houses the killer of former Punjab governor Salman Tasser, who was murdered in January 2011 for his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws.
Abbasi told AFP that Masih was illiterate but did not suffer from Down’s Syndrome.
“The girl is 16 years old as per the medical report and she is normal,” he said.
The arrests have further stoked religious tensions in the country, with many Christian families fleeing their homes over fears for their safety, according to reports.
State media said Monday that President Zardari had taken “serious note” of the incident and called for an explanation of the arrest.
In a report by online Pakistan news agency dawn.com on Monday, Nafisa Shah, head of the human rights unit of President Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party, was quoted as saying Masih’s arrest was a “glaring example” of the misuse of the country’s blasphemy laws, which have been the subject of widespread criticism at home and abroad.
“All political parties and religious leaders must come together to find a solution to this issue which is creating insecurity among minorities,” Shah was further quoted as saying.
Pakistan: Churches rattled after muslim extremists killed over a hundred people.