ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani police arrested a Muslim cleric who allegedly tampered with evidence submitted in the case against a Christian girl accused of desecrating a Quran, an investigating officer said Sunday, the latest twist in a religiously charged affair that has focused attention on the country's harsh blasphemy laws.
The case against the Christian girl accused of burning pages of a Quran has sparked controversy at home and abroad in large part because of her age and questions about her mental capacity. It also has triggered an exodus of hundreds of Christians from the neighborhood where the girl lived, fearful of retribution by their Muslim neighbors outraged by the alleged desecration of Islam's holy book.
The cleric, Khalid Chishti, was arrested late Saturday for allegedly planting pages of a Quran in a shopping bag containing burned papers and ash that had been carried by the Christian girl, said Munir Jaffery, an investigating officer in the case. The bag was then submitted as evidence to the police.
Jaffery said a member of the mosque where the cleric works came forward Saturday and said man said the imam had placed the evidence in the bag. According to police, the man claimed Chishti said it was a way to get rid of the Christians.
The man's testimony only surfaced more than two weeks after the girl was originally arrested, raising questions about why he did not come forward sooner.
The girl was later accused of desecrating the Quran, a serious offense in Pakistan that can result in life in prison.
The Associated Press is withholding the girl's name; the AP does not generally identify juveniles under 18 who are accused of crimes.
Chishti appeared in court Sunday with a white blindfold covering his eyes and shackles around his hands. He was surrounded by a large contingent of police as he was ushered into the courtroom.
"I have not done anything wrong. This is all fabrication," he defiantly told reporters.
A lawyer for the girl said her legal team was meeting to discuss what to do and would likely move to have the case thrown out.
"These things prove that we are definitely on the right way," the lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, said.
He said the imam's arrest shows his client is innocent. "Definitely she will be released."
A lawyer for the man who brought the complaint against the girl, Rao Abdur Raheem, claimed police were under pressure from higher-ups to soften the case.
"This deliberate twist in the case is aimed at discouraging complaints under the blasphemy law," he said in court Sunday.
The case has provoked an outcry from international human rights activists and shone an uncomfortable spotlight on Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Critics of the laws say they can be used to settle vendettas or seek retribution. Many of Pakistan's minorities, including Christians, live in fear of being accused of the offense.
The girl's lawyer, Chaudhry, said this case might lead to changes in the blasphemy law to prevent its misuse, but made clear that he had no problem with the law itself.
"Our concern is not about the law. The law is made for the betterment of society," he said. "The misuse and abuse of the law must be stopped."
People accused of the crime, 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 and beaten to death before his body was set on fire.
Few are willing to tackle the highly contentious issue after two prominent politicians who criticized the law were murdered last year. One was killed by his own bodyguard, who then attracted adoring crowds.
The Pakistani government has been largely silent on the girl's case.
Rebecca Santana can be reached at http://twitter.com/@ruskygal