Police in Pakistan have detained a Muslim cleric suspected of planting evidence to frame a young Christian girl for blasphemy.
Last month, 14-year-old Rimsha Masih was arrested, and accused by the Imam Khalid Chishti of carrying burned pages from an Islamic children’s textbook. She’s been in a high security prison ever since, even though she was deemed to be a juvenile with some mental impairment. Now, it turns out the cleric making the accusation may have done the deed himself.
Journalist and independent Pakistani filmmaker Beena Sarwar tells anchor Lisa Mullins that blasphemy cases in Pakistan often have to do with economic and political rivalry.
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Lisa Mullins: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is The World, the co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. Police in Pakistan are detaining a Muslim cleric who is suspected of planting evidence, to frame a young Christian girl for blasphemy. Last month the 14 year old girl named Rimsha was arrested. She was accused by the cleric of carrying burned pages from an Islamic children’s textbook. She’s been in a high-security prison since then, even though she was deemed to be a juvenile with a mental disability.
Well now it turns out the that cleric making the accusation may have done the deed himself.
Beena Sarwar is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker from Pakistan. She now lives in Cambridge. Beena was an eyewitness who came forth and has turned this case around with what he said he saw the cleric do. What was that?
Beena Sarwar: He says he saw the cleric put in pages of the burned, of the Quran into the bag that Rimsha was carrying to burn them and he said that the cleric, when he told him “Why are you adding material to what she’s carrying” the cleric told him “This will make our case stronger” and he said that he told him not to do that but the man didn’t listen and said “We want the Christians out of this area”.
Mullins: So he wanted the Christians out of this area. Tell us about that. I mean, was this the motivation if he’s proven guilty for trying to accuse this young girl of something that she did not do?
Sarwar: In every single case of blasphemy that’s been investigated so far it’s been found that there’s some kind of motive other than the religions behind it which has got to do with property, with the debt evasion, with trying to, you know, and prime property in Punjab and to get the Christians out of that area and take over that area might well have been a motive because a lot of them have fled that area now.
Mullins: So versus religious intolerance or an anti-Christian sentiment.
Sarwar: This is not about, I do not think this is about an anti-Christian sentiment. In Pakistan the different religions have lived peacefully and co-existed for years, but there are troublemakers that create these kinds of disturbances in a very deliberate way. It’s instigated, planned and religious emotions are then played up to created this kind of an atmosphere.
Mullins: This is far from the first case. In fact, there’s another case of a woman older than Rimsha who has been sentenced to death. Tell us about that case.
Sarwar: So that’s a case of Asia Bibi who’s a young mother. She has three young children and she’s the first woman to be sentenced to death under the blasphemy law, but having said that I should emphasize that no superior court in Pakistan has upheld the death sentences pronounced by the lower courts or the trial courts and Pakistan has never yet, the state has never yet executed anybody for so called “alleged blasphemy”.
Asia it he first woman who is in prison for that and her case should go to the lower high court and under normal procedures it would get overturned. I think that’s a case where it also shows the kind of transition in the society, the tensions of a society that’s changing where she’s a woman from the lowest socio-economic strata of society. Maybe 10 years ago she wouldn’t’ have argued back with the woman who accused her and the woman who accused her registered the case three or four days after the argument had taken place.
Mullins: And what’s the significance of that?
Sarwar: The significance of that is that some people went to those women, the women who accused her and, you know, worked on them and said, you know “This is your chance to go to heaven. If this woman has blasphemed, she has disrespected our religion. She has disrespected our prophet and you must take a stand and we will be with you and then you go and register this case” and the police are very quick to do that without investigating the real, what’s behind it.
Mullins: Being that blasphemy laws that exist in Pakistan are notoriously severe, in who’s interest is it to keep them severe?
Sarwar: I think it’s in the interest of the religious extremists and the religious right wing in Pakistan because that gives them some kind of place to unify and align people with and it kind of also falls in line with the ideology that, you know, Pakistan is an “Islamic state”. These people, this is their bread and butter and as democracy takes root in Pakistan and they find that they have no local standard with the population then they want to hang on to these kind of things and this law was introduced by a dictator who used religion to perpetuate his military dictatorship for 11 years.
Mullins: Even though you say there might be political underpinnings to a case like this it’s a class issue as well, this girl being from a poorer class. It’s a complex situation, but the tensions as they emerge sound like they’re coming from religious differences even if you say they’re not.
Sarwar: They are religious differences but it also has a lot to do with the national discourse in Pakistan, the public discourse, the way that it has been, the way that certain issues have been projected in the media, in the textbooks. I mean, it’s a very, very deep and complex issue, as you said. It’s not as simple as somebody just saying something and being punished for it. There’s a lot of different elements at play here.
Mullins: Does the case of this 14 year old, we don’t know what’s going to become of her or what’s going to happen in the case right now, but does this give you an idea of the direction that Pakistan is going in right now? Is it an illustration of anything for you?
Sarwar: I’m very hopeful that this will be a turning point. That because All Pakistan Ulema Council has come out in her support and they came out in her support before this issue of false evidence came out. They came out in her support that and said that, you know, she’s young and she’s got a mental disability. So if the All Pakistan Ulema Council which includes some really hard line clerics came out in her support, that shows that these people also realizing that they’ve gone too far now.
Mullins: Thank you very much for coming to the studio. Independent journalist and documentary filmmaker, Beena Sarwar, thank you.
Sarwar: Thank you.
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