After three weeks in a high-security prison, Rimsha Masih is out, having been granted bail. She was escorted from the prison by an armed guard and with her face covered before being flown by helicopter to a secret location.
The 14-year-old, who is accused by a neighbour of desecrating the Koran by burning its pages, was granted bail last Friday by Judge Mohammad Azam Khan, becoming the first person accused of blasphemy ever to have been granted bail in Pakistan.
This is great news, although one has to question the bail being set at a million rupees (around £6,600) given that Rimsha’s family live in a slum on a meagre income. Rimsha was lucky in that her case made international headlines and she therefore received support from external organisations. Had she not received this additional support, she would have remained in prison.
The decision to grant her bail may have had something to do with one of her accusers, Imam Khalid Chishti, being arrested on suspicion of planting evidence against her. Witnesses say they saw him put burnt pages of Islamic scripture into Rimsha’s bag.
The allegation of blasphemy – a serious crime in Pakistan – forced Rimsha’s family to go into hiding and, now that she has been released, she will join them there.
Granting bail, however, is not the same as acquitting her. The charges still stand and her legal team still has a fight on its hands to have them dropped altogether.
The uncertainty continues for Rimsha – who is 14 but has a lower mental age – as she will have to wait another three or four months before the next hearing is expected to take place.
And despite being in hiding, there are still strong concerns for her safety as it is not uncommon for people accused of blasphemy to be attacked or killed.
Nonetheless, we are all grateful that Rimsha has been released and credit must be given to Hafiz Zubair, who bravely testified that he had seen Imam Chishti tampering with the evidence.
There may even be signs of a wind change among Pakistan’s politicians. Things were very different when Asiya Bibi was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. Politicians spoke openly and fiercely against overturning the charge and freeing her. Those who did – Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti – were murdered. And Islamic groups held hate-filled protests across the country to oppose her release. Asiya, of course, remains in prison awaiting the outcome of a very lengthy appeal process.
This time round, the politicians have been quiet and, in a country like Pakistan, saying nothing says rather a lot.
The Pakistani media have also shown great courage in seeking to debate the case and report on it accurately.
Islamic scholars have been surprisingly supportive of Rimsha’s release, especially Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi, and Muslim scholar Dr Amir Liaqat spoken in favour of reforms to stop the misuse of the blasphemy laws. It is likely that without the combined support of the media, the politicians and the Muslim scholars, Rimsha’s story would be very different.
The general mood in Pakistan is supportive of her and that has given me real hope that she will be found innocent.
However, I still desire to see more. Muslim legal scholars appear to be open to at least talking about the blasphemy laws – a huge step in itself – and media attention is on these laws. The government should not lose this opportunity to address the misuse of the blasphemy laws and bring an end to the discrimination against minorities that they are causing.
If the government doesn’t do anything about it now, the looming elections make it likely that this matter will be kicked into the long grass. That would be a grave injustice for Pakistan’s suffering minorities who have already waited far too long for their cries to be heard.
How many more Rimshas might there be in the intervening time – victims who may not attract the same international attention?
Parliament has recently approved bills to deal with terrorism. This is a positive sign of change within our parliament but it should not stop there, but seek to address other problems on home soil. Laws to criminalise offences motivated by religious incitement and hatred would help to stop the bloodshed by extremist mobs and the killing of minorities in the name of religion.
The Islamic teachers have spoken in support of Rimsha, but now they must go one step further and speak out against hatred towards Christians and the unjust attacks being carried out on them.
Enough blood has been shed and minorities have suffered too long. Now their voices should be heard, and respected.