An adolescent girl was arrested and imprisoned in Pakistan on charges of burning the Koran, in what human rights analysts described as the latest in a series of abuses committed under the country’s blasphemy law, which is often used to persecute non-Muslim Pakistanis. The situation proves that Pakistan’s government needs to deal with the problems inherent to its blasphemy legislation and its sectarian conflicts, rather than simply trying to appease the mob.
Reports about this incident are varied and confused, but apparently the authorities decided to detain the Pakistani Christian girl, who is possibly as young as 11, for 14 days after her neighbors reported that they had seen her burning pages of the Islamic scripture. Under Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws the crime of burning the Koran can carry penalties of up to a life sentence or execution. After the arrest, an angry crowd of about 500 people gathered outside of the girl’s home, and one police officer said that the girl was being detained for her own protection.
Alleged burnings of the Koran have sparked protests and mob violence in the past. Earlier this year, a man accused of desecrating the Koran was dragged out of a police station in Pakistan by a thousands-strong mob before being beaten and burned to death. Koran burning also provoked violence in 2011 when Florida pastor Terry Jones burned a copy, provoking attacks across the Middle East, but particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which killed dozens of UN personnel and NATO troops.
As these reactions demonstrate, desecration of the Koran is a highly emotional and inflammatory issue in Pakistan, but reports by human rights groups and the police suggest that, in this case, the desecration may not have actually happened. Although some of the girl’s neighbors testified that they had seen her burning pages of the Koran, the police said that they found no evidence of it. Other observers suggested that, since many Pakistanis do not read Arabic, they may have unintentionally mistaken another book for the Koran. On the other hand, rights groups pointed out that Pakistan Muslims often use the blasphemy laws to harass their non-Muslim neighbors. A police officer quoted by the Washington Post said that the authorities would probably drop the charges after the furor dies down.
Given the emotional impact of the issue and the potential for mob violence, it’s not surprising that the fragile Pakistani government chose to act quickly, but it is reprehensible to imprison child when even the police themselves admit that they have no evidence.