Pakistan blasphemy suspect 'denied meeting with lawyer'

Pakistan blasphemy suspect 'denied meeting with lawyer'

A lawyer for a young Pakistani Christian girl arrested on blasphemy charges in a poor suburb of Islamabad claimed today he had been refused a meeting with her.

Police arrested the girl, Rimsha, who reportedly has Down's Syndrome, in a low-income neighbourhood of the capital last Thursday after she was accused of burning papers containing verses from the Koran, and remanded her for 14 days.

Rimsha, aged between 11 and 16, is being held in a jail in Islamabad's twin city Rawalpindi, and her case has prompted concern from Western governments and fury from rights campaigners.

"The lawyers are facing difficulties to see the accused girl. The jail authorities have told them to get permission from the top authorities," Shamaun Alfred Gill, a spokesman for All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), told AFP.

Her legal team said they had approached the higher authorities in Punjab province but could not get a go ahead for the meeting.

"I myself contacted the inspector general (of prisons) by phone and he told me that he will call me back, but I am still waiting to speak to him," Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, one of Rimsha's lawyers, told AFP.

"He is not receiving my calls now. Legally, they can't stop a lawyer seeing his client in the jail but the authorities are refusing us a meeting."

But Farooq Nazir, the inspector-general of Punjab prisons, told AFP there was no restriction on Rimsha meeting her lawyer or immediate family and insisted she was being cared for.

Rimsha is being held in the same jail as Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who last year gunned down Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who had declared Pakistan's strict anti-blasphemy legislation "a black law".

Chaudhry said that they have also filed an application with a court in Islamabad to set up a medical panel to determine Rimsha's age.

"We want the court to constitute a commission to judge the age of Rimsha, because, the church records show she is 11 years old only. While her age mentioned in the police report is 16," he said.

Around 97 per cent of Pakistan's 180 million population are Muslim and the country's tiny Christian minority has long suffered discrimination and poverty.

Debate is growing about the blasphemy laws, which make defaming Islam or desecrating the Koran in theory punishable by death, with rights groups warning the legislation is frequently abused to settle personal vendettas.

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