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 Saturday, 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.
The girl's lawyers said it would be the responsibility of the government to protect her and her family when she's released.
"We are really worried about her security," said Raja Ikram Ameen Minhas, one of her lawyers.
Paul Bhatti, an adviser to the prime minister on interfaith harmony, said it was unlikely that anyone would harm the girl considering the amount of support she's had, even inside Pakistan.
Unlike previous cases, few Muslim clerics or political leaders have pushed for her prosecution, likely due to the girl's age and mental state. In fact, a Pakistani association of Muslim clerics has been advocating on her behalf.
But blasphemy is an extremely contentious issue in this country, and people have been known to take the law into their own hands against accused blasphemers. A Pakistani man accused of blasphemy in July was dragged from a police station in the center of the country, beaten to death and his body set on fire.
Two prominent politicians also were gunned down last year for suggesting the blasphemy laws should be amended to prevent misuse. The killer of one of the politicians was later lauded by supporters who threw rose petals whenever he appeared at court.
In the poor, suburban neighborhood where the girl and her family used to live, her release was met with muted joy by Christian residents. Many fled after the accusations surfaced but have since returned because they have few other options. They've been staying with relatives or at area churches. Some even built a makeshift church out of tree branches in a vacant lot but were pushed out by police and angry neighbors.
"I think we will not be safe if she comes back here as someone would try to attack her, and in this situation we may also come under attack," Ashraf Masih said. "It is good for her to go to some other city with her family."
A lawyer for Malik Ammad, the man who brought the complaint against the girl, said the judge felt she was better able to defend herself outside prison but cautioned the case would continue.
"This doesn't mean the allegations against her were wrong," Rao Abdur Raheem said.
The Associated Press does not generally identify juveniles under 18 who are accused of crimes and is withholding her name.
Ali Dayan Hasan, the head of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, called for all charges against the girl to be dropped.
"Human Rights Watch hopes that the blatant abuse that has come to light in this case will lead to a considered re-examination of the law, and all stakeholders in Pakistan will actively seek to end frequent abuses perpetrated under cover of blasphemy allegations," he said.
Whether the case will lead to any changes in the blasphemy laws remains to be seen.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik told Pakistani legislators during a senate session Friday that the girl had been wrongly accused and that the police investigation had shown there was no truth to the allegations against her. He assured the legislators that no one would be allowed to misuse the blasphemy laws but in a sign of the limits in this overwhelmingly Muslim country, he also emphasized that no one would be allowed to insult Islam.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed and Zarar Khan contributed to this report.
Rebecca Santana can be reached at http://twitter.com/@ruskygal