ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN – A Pakistani court postponed a hearing Saturday on whether to grant bail to a Christian girl accused of burning pages containing Quran verses in a case that has heightened religious tensions.
Muslim lawyers demanded she remain in jail during a tense hearing that included a shouting match with the judge. They provided a list of reasons she should be detained, including questioning whether the girl gave her lawyer the power of attorney.
A judge ordered investigators to get more details on her power of attorney, and postponed the hearing to Monday. Before Saturday, a decision was supposed to come Thursday, but was deferred so authorities could answer questions about her medical history.
“All these are the delaying tactics by the lawyers of the complainant to keep the girl in jail,” said her lawyer, Tahir Naveed Choudhry.
Pakistani authorities have come under pressure to guarantee her safety in a country where those accused of blasphemy have been killed by the public in the past.
Her lawyers dashed into a car and sped off after the hearing for safety reasons. The girl, named Rimsha, did not attend.
Choudhry, has sought bail, saying she is legally a minor and should be reunited with her parents rather than kept in a jail with adults.
He cited a report by an independent medical board stating that the girl is 14. The doctors who examined her also concluded that her mental age was lower than her chronological age. She also suffers from Down syndrome, he said.
But on Thursday, the lawyer for the man accusing the girl questioned the legal validity of the board’s report. The lawyer, Rao Abdur Raheem, said the seven-doctor board was mandated by local authorities, not by court order.
As a result, the court adjourned until Saturday to allow time to verify the medical report.
Police have said that the girl is illiterate and has not attended school. They said last week that she had told them that she had no idea that there were Quran verses inside the documents she alleged to have burned.
The court faces a difficult decision amid concerns that if she is released on bail, she could be at risk from Muslims angered by the allegations against her.
Choudhry, a leading member of the Christian community, said the girl is too young to stay in prison and would be safer joining her relatives, who are in hiding.
“She was crying in the jail and missing her parents,” he said.
Choudhry says he expects the trial to last as long as two years. She would remain in custody for its duration, if bail is denied, he said.
If she is tried as a minor, she might receive a milder sentence if convicted. As an adult, she faces a maximum sentence of life in prison for blasphemy, the lawyer said.
She was accused by a local resident of burning pages containing the Muslim holy text after she gathered paper as fuel for cooking in Islamabad, according to the authorities.
The lawyer has said nobody actually saw her burning the papers.
The case has sent hundreds of Christian families fleeing from the area for fear of violence, her lawyer said.
About 150 people gathered on August 17 — the day she was arrested — in the area where the neighborhood’s Christian population lives and threatened to burn down their houses, police said.