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Rimsha Masih released on bail and flown to secret location by helicopter

A police official and a Christian volunteer escort Rimsha to a helicopter (Photo: AP)

The Pakistani Christian girl accused of blasphemy was granted bail on Friday after three weeks in police custody.

The judge, who ordered the girl’s release on a bail of about £3,300, said there was insufficient evidence to justify continuing to hold Rimsha Masih in jail. However, the case against her was not dismissed.

Rimsha was taken from the prison in an armoured vehicle on Friday afternoon and escorted to a helicopter with a sheet covering her face. She was to be flown to meet her family in a secret location for the sake of her own safety.

Investigations continue into accusations that Rimsha burned pages of the Koran — a violation of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws — as well as into the actions of Khalid Jadoon Chishti, a Muslim cleric, who was taken into police custody after being accused of planting the pages of the Koran and burned pieces of paper in the girl’s bag.

Rimsha had been in police custody since August 18. Her parents said she is 11 years old and has Down syndrome; a court appointed physician reported she was about 14 and is developmentally delayed.

Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the Pakistani bishops’ National Commission for Justice and Peace, told Vatican Radio the bail was high for Pakistan and certainly beyond the means of Rimsha’s family, but donations were expected to cover it.

Granting bail was “not a charitable gesture” on the part of the court, he said, and the simple fact that “for three weeks a child was kept in custody” raised questions about the Pakistani justice system.

However, he said, the case had led to more calls, including from mainstream Muslim clerics and scholars, to at least add “safeguards against the abuse of the blasphemy laws”.

Her lawyer Tahir Naveed Chaudhry said after the court hearing: “It’s a big achievement and will boost public trust in the judiciary of this country. This is the first time a false accuser has been arrested. We thank clerics, media and the nation for supporting the cause.”

However, the central executive committee member of the All Pakistan Minority Alliance, a Christian political party, said there were still fears for Rimsha’s safety.

“An accused usually leaves the city after being charged with such serious allegations [especially ones] which deal with religious sentiments,” he said.

“Even judges and lawyers face threats. Likewise we shall move the family to a safe location.”

Church leaders and human rights organisations have long said Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law has been abused to persecute Christians and even to settle personal disputes.

The case has sparked international condemnation of a country whose anti-blasphemy laws remain among the strictest in the world. Those found guilty can be sentenced to death.

Bishop Sebastian Shaw, Apostolic Administrator of Lahore Archdiocese, told Aid to the Church in Need that the decision to release Rimsha was “a big break-through”.

He said: “[It] gives courage to other judges to act in a similar way.”

Bishop Shaw added: “Many Muslims were thinking in a positive, sympathetic way but weren’t able to say as much openly. With this precedent, they may be encouraged to say what they want.”

Earlier, Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi told ACN: “This has come as a shock to everybody. What we have seen is a real challenge to our judiciary.

“The question has been: ‘will we get an objective assessment or will the court give in to the emotionalism of those opposing Rimsha?’”