(NEW YORK) — Her nightmare is finally over.
After three weeks behind bars, Rimsha Masih, a mentally challenged Christian girl whose imprisonment drew condemnation from religious rights groups around the world, was released Saturday.
The young girl was whisked away, along with her mother, from an Islamabad jail, a day after a judge granted her bail. She was taken to an armored vehicle, and then transferred to a helicopter, which flew her to an undisclosed location.
The case has sparked a firestorm of controversy. Opponents argue the country’s blasphemy laws are used as a weapon to persecute the country’s religious minorities. Supporters of the law say it serves to safeguard the sanctity of their religion.
Masih was arrested on Aug. 16 after local Muslims in her neighborhood found her carrying burned pages with Arabic writing in a plastic bag. Though it’s unclear whether the pages were of the Quran — Islam’s holy book — or even where the bag came from, the neighborhood erupted in fury.
Pakistan, like many Muslim countries, considers any desecration of the Quran a criminal offense, punishable by life in prison or death.
The angry mob surrounded her tiny, one-bedroom home in a mixed Muslim-Christian neighborhood on the outskirts of Islamabad, demanding she be arrested. When the mob grew violent, police moved in and placed the girl under arrest. Fearing a backlash, several Christian families in the area fled their homes.
Last week, the case took a bizarre twist when the imam of the local mosque in her neighborhood, Khalid Jadoon, was arrested himself, accused of framing the young girl by planting the evidence in her bag.
Speaking exclusively to ABC News the day before he was arrested, Jadoon insisted the girl is guilty.
“She confessed,” he said. “That’s why we took her to the police station.
When asked why he, as a religious leader, didn’t intervene to calm the raging mob that had surrounded her home, Jadoon was unrepentant.
“Why should I have stopped them?” he said. “It’s a matter of my religion. If there’s a threat to Islam, if our government doesn’t stand up to that person, then the people will. I’ll be the first of them.”
Now, in a twist of fate, Jadoon is locked up in a Pakistani jail, charged with blasphemy, facing the same uncertain fate as Masih did.
In the girl’s neighborhood, most Christian families have returned and are celebrating her release.
“When the case started, we thought all Christians in the entire country would suffer,” Yusuf Masih, a Christian villager says. “We’re happy about the verdict.”
Rimsha’s case has drawn an unusual amount of support in the conservative country, including calls from the country’s top Muslim clerics that she be released.
Many Muslims in her village hope her release will allow the community to move on.
“The issue became too emotional” said Abdul Khaliq, a Muslim village elder. “Whether we’re satisfied or not, this was a decision of a competent authority.”
Now that she’s been granted bail, Rimsha’s lawyers hope the judge will dismiss the charges entirely — a move that would defuse tensions in one of Pakistan’s most volatile cases, one that pits Pakistan’s moderates against its extremists.
As for Rimsha herself, the only indication she ever lived in her impoverished neighborhood is the padlock on her family’s tiny home.
Neighbors say they don’t expect her to return.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Susan Scutti, CNN
Andreas Preuss, CNN