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Islamabad: Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari has asked officials to explain the arrest on blasphemy charges of a Christian girl with Down's Syndrome who allegedly burnt pages inscribed with verses from the Quran.
The girl, Rimsha, was arrested in a low-income neighbourhood of the capital on Thursday and remanded in custody for 14 days after furious Muslims demanded she be punished, police said.
The incident has sparked a furore and has highlighted yet again a growing debate about religious intolerance in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where strict anti-blasphemy laws make defaming Islam or desecrating the Quran punishable by death.
In fact, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan today joined in the outrage over the incident. "SHAMEFUL! Sending an 11 yr old girl to prison is against the very spirit of Islam which is all about being Just and Compassionate. Poor child is already suffering from Down Syndrome", Mr Khan posted on the micro-blogging site Twitter.
In view of the growing criticism, President Asif Ali Zardari took "serious note" of her arrest and called on the interior ministry to submit a report on the case, state media said.
His government has been heavily criticised in the West for refusing to reform the anti-blasphemy law, despite the assassinations of a leading politician and a Christian cabinet minister who spoke out against the law in 2011.
Human rights activists say the law is often used to settle petty disputes.
Speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, police said the girl was 16 years old. Activists and neighbours say she is between 10 and 13 years old.
Some reports suggested the girl had been burning papers collected from a rubbish pile for cooking when someone entered her house and accused the family of burning pages inscribed with verses from the Quran.
Muslim anger over the alleged incident forced Christians to flee the mixed neighbourhood of Mehrabad, 20 minutes' drive from Western embassies.
Police investigator Zabhiullah Abbasi said Rimsha had been remanded until August 25, when she will be charged in court with blasphemy in Adiyala jail.
The bodyguard killer of Punjab governor Salman Tasser, who was murdered in January 2011 for his opposition to the law, is being held in the same place.
Abbasi said Rimsha was illiterate but denied she had Down's Syndrome.
"The girl is 16-year-old as per the medical report and she is normal," Abbasi told AFP.
Rimsha's house was locked on Monday and no one was at home, said an AFP reporter. Local police said the family had gone to relatives outside Islamabad.
Hammad Malik, 22, who lives next door, told AFP by telephone that he saw the girl burning pages with Quranic verses on them.
"I was sitting outside my house and a few minutes before iftar (the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast) I saw her burning some booklets on the rubbish heap. I noticed there were some pages on which Quranic verses were printed," he said.
Malik claimed he recovered most of the material - a beginners Quran booklet and advice on how to pray with Quranic verses - but that a girl living in the neighbourhood recovered the rest from the rubbish heap.
"She picked up some pages and took them to the mosque. The prayer leader, on seeing the pages, called the police and I recorded my statement based on what I had seen," he told AFP.
He described Rimsha as "12-13 years old" and "almost normal as she does all her household chores".
Another neighbour, Malik Wahid, 18, said the girl was about 10-11 years old and did not appear "insane".
But an official of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, told AFP the girl had Down's Syndrome -- a condition that causes various degrees of learning difficulties.
Otherwise, Christians who fled for shelter with relatives elsewhere in Islamabad were now gradually returning to Mehrabad, he added.
The Women's Action Forum, a leading Pakistani organisation fighting for the rights of women, condemned Rimsha's arrest.
Taseer was assassinated in January 2011 and minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti two months later for their opposition to the blasphemy law.
They had taken up the plight of a Christian mother sentenced to death for blasphemy in late 2010. She remains in prison.
Last month, a Pakistani mob snatched a mentally unstable man from a village police station and beat him to death in central Punjab province after he allegedly burned pages from a Quran.
(With inputs from AFP)
Story first published:
August 20, 2012 19:56 IST