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Religious minorities in Pakistan continue to live in fear under the country’s controversial blasphemy laws and mob violence. The latest victim is an 11-year-old Christian girl with Down’s syndrome, who could face the death penalty under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
Dr Paul Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister for National Harmony, said that the police were at first reluctant to arrest the young girl, known as Rishma, after ‘she was found carrying a waste bag which also had pages of the Koran’. However they eventually gave way to pressure last Thursday from a large mob of local people who were threatening to burn down the homes of Christians. These threats have driven more than 600 to flee from that Christian neighbourhood. Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws provide penalties ranging from a life sentence for desecrating the Koran to the death penalty.
Rishma is the latest of a long line of victims amongst religious minorities and opponents of the blasphemy laws. Those accused of blasphemy are often put in solitary confinement to protect them from harassment, threats, violent attacks and murder by other inmates and guards. Even those acquitted of blasphemy have no choice but to go into hiding or flee Pakistan.
Many politicians pushing for change in the law have been targeted, and often killed, by violent mobs. Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a member of the Pakistan People’s Party, was murdered after speaking out in support of a Christian woman, Aasia Noreen who was sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Two months later, Pakistan’s minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was shot dead after calling for the repeal of the blasphemy law. He died just several weeks after saying, having received a series of death threats, that he was prepared to die for his beliefs.
In January 2011, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani reiterated that there would be no amendments to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. However, President Asif Ali Zardari has called for an explanation as to why the young Christian girl was arrested for blasphemy.