By Aisha Chowdhry
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Christian girl arrested in Pakistan for defaming Islam was granted bail on Friday, a judge said, days after police detained a Muslim cleric on suspicion of planting evidence to frame her in a case that caused an international outcry.
Masih, believed to be 14, may be in danger if she is set free and stays in Pakistan. Her arrest last month angered religious and secular groups worldwide but protests in Pakistan attracted only a handful of supporters.
In Muslim Pakistan, the mere allegation of causing offence to Islam can mean death. Those accused under an anti-blasphemy law are sometimes lynched by the public even if they are found innocent by the courts.
The girl would be reunited with her family at a location that was being kept secret for security reasons, said Robinson Asghar, an aide to Minister for National Harmony Paul Bhatti.
There were no plans to send Masih abroad, Bhatti told Reuters.
"I am really satisfied and happy," he said. "I believe justice has prevailed."
Masih was accused by Muslim neighbors of burning Islamic religious texts and arrested, but police recently said a cleric had been taken into custody after witnesses reported he had torn pages from a Koran and planted them in Masih's bag beside burned papers.
In Masih's impoverished village on the edge of Islamabad, some said they were disappointed that she had not been sentenced.
"This is wrong. She burned the Koran," said resident Ijaz Sarwar near the local mosque.
Nearby, Saddam Hussein, 18, expressed sympathies for the cleric accused of framing Masih. "If she is freed, the maulvi (cleric) should be freed as well," he said.
There were conflicting accounts of how much bail would have to be paid but Masih's lawyer said it was about the equivalent of $10,000.
MORE THAN ONE MILLION SIGN PETITION
Activists and human rights groups say vague terminology has led to the anti-blasphemy law's misuse, and that it dangerously discriminates against tiny minority groups.
Human Rights Watch welcomed Masih's release and urged authorities to consider reforming the law.
"This child should not have been behind bars at all. All charges against her should be dropped," the international rights group said in a statement.
"Pakistan's criminal justice system should instead concentrate on holding her accuser accountable for inciting violence against the child and members of the local Christian community."
More than a million people globally have signed a petition started by Masih's father for her release.
But despite the international condemnation, many Pakistanis support the blasphemy law.
Last year, Punjab province governor Salman Taseer was shot dead by his bodyguard for suggesting the law be reformed. Lawyers hailed Taseer's killer as a hero, tossing rose petals at him after he was arrested.
Taseer had been defending a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was jailed on blasphemy charges. She is still in jail on death row.
Two months after Taseer's murder, Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was killed by the Taliban for demanding changes to the law.
Critics of Pakistan's leaders say they are too worried about an extremist backlash to speak out against the law in a nation where religious conservatism is increasingly prevalent.
Christians, who make up four percent of Pakistan's population of 180 million, have been especially concerned about the blasphemy law, saying it offers them no protection.
Convictions hinge on witness testimony and are often linked to vendettas, they complain.
In 2009, 40 houses and a church were set ablaze by a mob of 1,000 Muslims in the town of Gojra, in Punjab province. At least seven Christians were burnt to death. The attacks were triggered by reports of the desecration of the Koran.
Two Christian brothers accused of writing a blasphemous letter against the Prophet Mohammad were gunned down outside a court in the eastern city of Faisalabad in July of 2010.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)
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