Barely a year after Muhammad Waqas, a man jailed for blasphemy in 2016, was acquitted of all charges by Pakistan’s Lahore High Court, he was hacked to death by a police constable.
Waqas was accused of sharing sketches online that insulted the Prophet Muhammad. According to the police, the 21-year-old policeman, who was arrested last week, said he killed Waqas because “he had committed blasphemy.”
“The police constable said [the charges against Waqas] ‘hurt his religious sentiments’, but that is not a justification to assassinate anyone,” Sohail Sukheira, the Deputy Inspector General of police in Pakistan’s Punjab province, told VICE World News. “Investigations are ongoing.”
Police officials said the accused policeman was a constable who was still training with the force, and turned himself in after killing Waqas. BBC Urdu reported that the policeman’s name is Abdul Qadir.
In Pakistan, blasphemy convictions can carry the death penalty. While no one has ever been executed under the country’s controversial blasphemy law, dozens have been killed by mobs after being accused.
According to the police, Waqas spent several months in hiding even after his acquittal, and had only returned to his home a few weeks ago.
Pakistan inherited the blasphemy law from the British, who, between 1860 to 1927, made it a crime in the former colony to insult religious beliefs, or intentionally destroy or defile a place or an object of worship. Since then, offences like making derogatory remarks against people revered in Islam have been added to the law.
Lawyers and activists have opposed the law, saying it incites vigilantes and violent mobs to attack those accused, even when the court finds them innocent.
“Although the blasphemy laws are essentially a colonial legacy, they have attracted controversy particularly since the death penalty was introduced for offences under Section 295C in the 1990s,” Harris Khalique, the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told VICE World News. “Although no one has yet been legally executed under this law, the mere allegation of blasphemy can be enough to trigger attempts to murder the accused.”
In 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab and a vocal critic of the law, was assassinated by his own bodyguard, who was subsequently hailed as a hero. A month after Taseer’s death, the Religious Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who also advocated against the laws, was murdered too.
Even today, those charged with blasphemy but later acquitted by courts continue to face violence.
“Many cases drag on for years, and prompt acquittals are not common, given the low threshold of evidence,” Khalique pointed out. “The emotive nature of the offence means that, even if the accused is acquitted, they are unlikely to be able to shed the dangerous baggage that accompanies such allegations.”
In June, a Pakistani court overturned a death sentence given to a Christian couple for blasphemy citing a lack of evidence. The couple was convicted in 2014 and had been in jail for 7 years.
Last year, Tahir Naseem, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin, was shot and killed while standing trial for blasphemy charges in the northwestern city Peshawar.
In April, supporters of the extremist group Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan held police officers hostage and protested across the country to demand the expulsion of the French ambassador over cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad published in France.
According to the Human Rights Commission, while most of the 586 cases recorded by the police in 2020 involved Muslims, minority communities like the Ahmadiyyas and Christians were disproportionately targeted.
Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan was criticised for supporting the blasphemy laws during his election campaign in 2018. In April this year, he called upon Muslim-majority countries to come together and lobby Western governments to criminalise blasphemy, too.