Cleric accused of planting evidence

Pakistani police have arrested a Muslim cleric who accused a Christian girl of blasphemy on suspicion that he planted evidence, a police officer has said, in the latest twist in a religiously charged case that has focused attention on Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws.

The case of the Christian girl accused of allegedly burning pages of a Koran has sparked controversy at home and abroad in large part because of her age and questions about her mental capacity. It also has triggered an exodus of hundreds of Christians from the neighbourhood where the accused girl lived, fearful of retribution by their Muslim neighbours.

The cleric, Khalid Chishti, was arrested for allegedly planting pages of a Koran in a shopping bag containing burned papers and ash that had been carried by the Christian girl, said Munir Jaffery, an investigating officer in the case.

Chishti is scheduled to appear in court later.

The girl was later accused of burning pages of the Koran, a serious offence in Pakistan that can result in life in prison.

The about-face could lead to her being released from prison.

The girl's family and some human rights activists put the girl's age at as young as 11. A medical board who reviewed her case determined she was around the age of 14 and said her mental capacity did not match her age, which called into question her mental state.

Critics of Pakistan's blasphemy laws say they can be used to settle vendettas or seek retribution. Many of Pakistan's minorities, including Christians, live in fear of being accused of the offense.

People accused of the crime, even those that aren't convicted, often face vigilante justice by outraged Pakistanis. A Pakistani man accused of blasphemy in July was dragged from a police station in the centre of the country, beaten to death and his body set on fire.

Few are willing to tackle the explosive issue after two prominent politicians who criticised the law were murdered last year. One was killed by his own bodyguard, who then attracted adoring crowds. The Pakistani government has been largely silent on the girl's case.