A US Citizen On Trial in Pakistan For Calling Himself a Prophet Was Shot Dead in a Courtroom

By some estimates, at least 88 people have died in extrajudicial killings linked to Pakistan's blasphemy laws.
02 August 2020, 10:43pm
blasphemy laws pakistan
Security personnel stand guard outside the district court building following the killing of a man allegedly accused of blasphemy in Peshawar on July 29, 2020. Photo courtesy of AFP

A 47-year-old man died after being shot six times in a district court in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. The incident took place on July 29.

Tahir Ahmad Naseem was accused of having committed blasphemy by claiming to be a prophet. He had been in police custody since 2018 under Pakistan’s hardline and colonial blasphemy laws. Naseem was identified by the US State Department as a US citizen on July 30. The incident took place when Naseem was at his trial hearing on Wednesday morning.

The attacker was arrested at the scene and admitted to the crime. "The culprit accepts responsibility for killing him, and says that he killed him for having committed blasphemy," police official Ijaz Ahmed told Al Jazeera.

In Pakistan, blasphemy is legally punishable by death. Even though there have been no executions under the draconian law, there have been reports of extrajudicial murders and mob violence.

Naseem was a member of the Ahmadiyya sect, a minority community not allowed to call itself Islamic under Pakistani laws. They also face religious persecution and discrimination. The anti-blasphemy laws are known to disproportionately target Ahmadi Muslims.

The attacker, while being taken away, reportedly shouted that Naseem was “an enemy of Islam”. The Guardian reported that the alleged killer told the police that he was ordered in a dream to kill Naseem.

An Amnesty International report titled “As Good As Dead: The Impact of the Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan” recorded a pattern of serious abuses against those accused. It also states that the laws created an environment for some people to take the law into their own hands while the police stand aside.

“The laws have been used as a cover for perpetrators of mob violence,” stated the report. “A striking figure has been the disproportionate number of victims of such vigilantism being from religious minority groups.”

Naseem was first accused in 2018 by a madrassa student from Peshawar, Awais Malik. According to news reports, Naseem used to talk to him online when he was living in the US. In an interview with BBC, Malik said that he filed a police case against him after discussing his views on religion at a shopping mall in Peshawar.

A spokesman from the Ahmadi sect in Peshawar told the BBC that Naseem had left the sect and claimed to be a prophet. The community leader, who is not named in the report, suggested Naseem was mentally ill and had YouTube videos claiming to be a messiah.

Human rights bodies note that the blasphemy laws are a blatant violation of rights to life; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief; and freedom of opinion and expression. “Individuals with mental disabilities are at particular risk of being accused of blasphemy,” stated the Amnesty report.

According to an Al Jazeera tally, at least 88 people have been killed in connection with blasphemy accusations. In recent years, killings connected to this law include singers, teachers considered advocating “un-Islamic practices” and members of the Ahmedi sect.

Last week, the provincial government of Punjab banned 100 textbooks taught in private schools for carrying “blasphemous and anti-Pakistan” content. The ban included publishers like Oxford and Cambridge. The authorities said the banned books distorted facts about Pakistan and its creation.

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