PAKISTANI police have arrested a Muslim cleric on suspicion of planting evidence against a young Christian girl accused of blasphemy, the latest twist to a case that has shone a spotlight on the country's persecuted minorities.
Rimsha Misah has been held in prison for more than a fortnight after being arrested in a Christian enclave outside Islamabad. She is accused of burning pages of a religious text, a crime punishable with death.
Her supporters now say she could be freed as soon as today.
They say she has Down Syndrome and is the victim of a long-running-vendetta carried out by Muslims who want the Christian community to leave their homes.
They appeared to be vindicated yesterday when Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishtie, imam of a nearby mosque, was charged with desecrating a Koran by adding pages to charred rubbish collected from Rimsha.
He was detained late on Saturday night after worshippers at his mosque came forward to say that he had been seen tampering with evidence.
"He was arrested after his deputy, Maulvi Zubair, and two others told a magistrate he added pages from the Koran to the burnt pages brought to him by a witness," said Munir Hussain Jaffri, a police investigator.
The details offer the chance for Pakistan to draw a line under a seemingly intractable saga that has exposed its violent religious divide.
At the same time, however, hardliners have warned of a conspiracy, and question why it has taken so long for the new witness to come forward.
Rao Abdur Raheem, a lawyer for the man who made the original allegation, accused the authorities of interfering in the case.
"They are pressurising the complainants and witnesses to facilitate the bail of Rimsha," he told the court.
Rimsha has been refused bail and is being held in the notorious Adiala jail.
A medical report last week said she appeared to be 14 years old, which would make her a minor, and had a mental age below her true age and therefore eligible for bail, but the court has yet to decide whether to accept the assessment.
Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, her defence lawyer, said the arrest would bolster efforts to free Rimsha at a bail hearing today. He added that no one had explained how her accusers had managed to see inside the bag she was carrying and spot burned pages of Koranic verse.
"From the first moment, we believed the accusation was false and fabricated," he said. "The imam himself has admitted trying to drive Christians away from the area."
Rimsha's neighbourhood has been the scene of a long-running religious dispute, with Muslims angered by hymns sounding from a church. They say they have come under intense police pressure to withdraw the original blasphemy allegation after an international outcry. The Vatican, democracy movements and Western governments have all expressed concern about the case.
Human rights groups believe that Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws are being abused to target religious minorities or settle personal scores.
The issue is hugely sensitive in Pakistan, where 97 per cent of the 180 million population are Muslims, and allegations of insulting Islam or the Prophet Mohammed often prompt a furious public reaction. (© Daily Telegraph, London)