- Associated Press - Monday, September 3, 2012

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani police are investigating whether a Muslim cleric who allegedly tried to frame a Christian girl for blasphemy should be charged with insulting Islam himself and potentially face life in prison, a police officer said Monday.

Khalid Chisti was arrested Saturday after a member of his mosque accused him of stashing pages of a Quran in a Christian girl’s bag to make it seem as if she had burned the Islamic holy book. He allegedly planted the evidence to push Christians out of his neighborhood in Islamabad. He has denied the allegations.

The case has generated significant international attention because of reports that the girl is as young as 11 and is mentally handicapped.

Human rights activists long have criticized Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, saying they are misused to persecute non-Muslims and settle personal vendettas. The activists have hailed Mr. Chisti’s arrest as unprecedented and hope it will prevent false blasphemy accusations in the future.

More immediately, they have called for the release of the Christian girl, who has been held in prison for more than two weeks.

She will remain in jail until at least Friday after her bail hearing was postponed for a second time Monday, said her lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry. The court adjourned the hearing until then because of a lawyers’ strike, he said.

Police registered a blasphemy case against Mr. Chisti on Monday for allegedly desecrating the Quran, said police Officer Munir Jafferi. If he is charged by a court and convicted, he could face life in prison, Officer Jafferi said.

A separate section of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws says insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammed carries the death penalty.

Police also are contemplating leveling additional charges against Mr. Chisti, such as fraud, planting evidence and making false allegations, Officer Jafferi said.

Police arrested the girl from her neighborhood in Islamabad more than two weeks after an angry mob of several hundred appeared at a local police station and demanded action against her for alleged blasphemy. Police said at the time that they took her into custody partly to protect her from potential harm.

People accused of blasphemy, even those who aren’t convicted, often face vigilante justice by outraged Pakistanis. 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.

Christians in the girl’s neighborhood left the area en masse as soon as the accusations surfaced, fearing retribution from their Muslim neighbors.

The Associated Press has withheld the girl’s name because it generally does not identify juveniles under 18 who are accused of crimes.

The girl’s supporters say she is 11 years old and has Down syndrome; a medical board said she was about 14 and that her mental age didn’t match her physical age.

Associated Press writer Zarar Khan contributed to this report.

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