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Pakistan arrests girl for alleged Koran-burning


(CBS News) ISLAMABAD - A teenage girl in Pakistan has been arrested after furious mobs surrounded her house, accusing her of violating the nation's strict blasphemy laws - an offense which can, but rarely does, lead to the death penalty - by allegedly burning pages of a Koran. The case has highlighted the tremendous sway radical Islamic groups hold over society in many parts of Pakistan.

Much remains unconfirmed about the girl, a member of Pakistan's Christian minority from the impoverished outskirts of Islamabad, including her exact age and whether she suffers from a severe mental or physical disability. Various reports say she is anywhere between 11 and 16, and there has been one claim that she suffers from Down's Syndrome.

The case has evoked fears that Pakistan's radical Islamic factions might try again to use the blasphemy laws to target the country's religious minorities - to the extent that President Asif Ali Zardari has intervened, asking the Ministry of Interior to examine the circumstances of her detention.

"The president is very disturbed over this case and wants it to be thoroughly re-examined," an official who works with Zardari tells CBS News. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says it remains unclear what ailment the girl might suffer from, but her age alone is cause for an investigation into the case.

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"Members of her family say she suffers from a mental ailment, but they have no papers to back the claim," says the official, adding, "she is still underaged."

A Pakistani Christian priest with knowledge of the case tells CBS News the girl, who was arrested Aug. 16, remains in police custody on Monday as the government's investigation continues.

"Her arrest came after a few hundred Muslims gathered outside this young girl's home and accused her of burning pages of their religious book," says the priest. He said the girl's parents were also in police custody, "but more in a protective move to ensure that no harm comes to them."

A local police official, Qasim Niazi, tells the Associated Press that when the girl had with her a shopping bag containing various religious papers that had been partly burned when she arrived at the police station, but no Koran.

Police were reportedly reluctant to arrest the girl, given her age and apparent disability, but took her into custody as they came under pressure from the angry crowds gathered around her home.

The case has prompted an outcry from human rights activists, who warn that it highlights the degree to which militants battling Pakistan's own security forces, and the U.S.-led military coalition in neighboring Afghanistan, have come to influence the country's mainstream political culture.

"She is a teenager of less than 18 years of age. The law says she can't be prosecuted like an adult," human rights lawyer Ayesha Khan tells CBS News. "What we are seeing here is the pressure coming from militant elements."

It is not the first time that religious minorities, or minors, have been accused of violating the blasphemy laws, and Pakistani rights group Citizens for Democracy, says minorities appear to be targeted disproportionately.

The group says 343 people have been prosecuted under the laws across Pakistan since 1953, and of that total, 166 have been non-Muslim religious minorities. Given that approximately 97 percent of Pakistan is Muslim, Muhammad Nafees of Citizens for Democracy says, relatively speaking, the cases against minorities are "many times higher than the number of Muslim offenders of this law."

A senior Western diplomat suggests that the attention the girl's case is garnering may actually lead to a relatively fast and quiet resolution, but that it again demonstrates the militant factions' power over justice and politics in the country.

"The fact that president Zardari has become involved seems to suggest that this girl will not be prosecuted," the diplomat tells CBS News. "The government will find a way to resolve this matter quietly, but this episode does serve as a lesson on the nuisance value of militants in Pakistan."