ISLAMABAD — A Christian girl was sent to a Pakistani prison after being accused by her furious Muslim neighbors of burning pages of the Islamic holy book, the Quran, in violation of the country's strict blasphemy laws.
A police official said Monday there was little evidence that pages of the book had been burned and that the case would likely be dropped. But hundreds of angry neighbors gathered outside the girl's home last week demanding action in a case raising new concerns about religious extremism in this conservative Muslim country.
Some human rights officials and media reports said the girl was mentally handicapped. Police gave conflicting reports of her age as 11 and 16.
Under Pakistan's blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad or defiling the holy book, or Quran, can face life in prison or even execution. Critics say the laws are often misused to harass non-Muslims or target individuals.
Police put the girl in jail for 14 days on Thursday after neighbors said they believed a Christian girl had burned pages of a Quran, gathering outside her house in a poor outlying district of Islamabad, said police officer Zabi Ullah. He suggested she was being held for her protection.
"About 500 to 600 people had gathered outside her house in Islamabad and they were very emotional, angry and they might have harmed her if we had not quickly reacted," Ullah said.
Nearly everyone in the girl's neighborhood insisted she burned the Quran's pages, even though police said they had found no evidence. One police official, Qasim Niazi, said when the girl was brought to the police station, she had a shopping bag that contained various religious and Arabic-language papers that had been partly burned, but there was no Quran.
Some residents claimed they actually saw burnt pages of Quran — either at the local mosque or at the girl's house. Few people in Pakistan actually speak or read Arabic, so often assume that anything they see with Arabic script is believed to be from the Quran, sometimes the only Arabic-language book people have seen.
But one police officer familiar with the girl's case said the matter would likely be dropped once the investigation is completed and the atmosphere is defused, saying there was "nothing much to the case." He did not want to be identified due to the sensitivity of the case.
A spokesperson for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Farhatullah Babar, said the president has taken "serious note" of reports of the girl's arrest and has asked the Interior Ministry to look into the case.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the case "deeply disturbing".
"We urge the government of Pakistan to protect not just its religious minority citizens but also women and girls," she said.
The Associated Press is withholding the girl's name; the AP does not generally identify juveniles under 18 who are accused of crimes.
The case demonstrates the deep emotion that suspected blasphemy cases can evoke in a country where many critics say the blasphemy laws are often abused.
"It has been exploited by individuals to settle personal scores, to grab land, to violate the rights of non-Muslims, to basically harass them," said Zora Yusuf, head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.