A Pakistani man on trial for blasphemy has been shot dead in a courtroom, in the latest violent incident connected with the country’s blasphemy laws.
Tahir Ahmed Naseem had been in prison since his arrest in 2018, allegedly after claiming he was a prophet. He is a member of the Ahmedi sect, which is persecuted in Pakistan where they have officially been declared non-Muslims.
The shooting took place at a high-security complex next to the Peshawar high court.
“I was sitting on my seat in the office around 11.30 when I heard the firing,” said Saeed Zaher, a lawyer, who rushed to the site of the attack, and said the victim appeared to have been shot once in the head. “The killer was caught by the police and the body was lying on a bench within the courtroom.”
Members of the public are allowed to observe trials, but for his attacker to smuggle in a weapon represents a serious security breach. “A person entering with a pistol and murdering someone within a courtroom is very disturbing,” Zaher added.
Footage circulating on social media appeared to show the alleged killer, sitting barefoot on a bench under police guard, claiming he had been ordered in a dream to kill Naseem. He also attacked judges who hear blasphemy cases.
Blasphemy is an enormously sensitive charge in Pakistan, a criminal offence that can carry the death penalty, yet which is sometimes used to settle personal scores, and has become extremely difficult for the justice system to handle.
Mere accusations have prompted mob violence and lynchings; lower-court judges feel unable to acquit defendants for fear of their lives; even a supreme court justice recused himself from a 2016 trial.
While the state has never executed anyone under blasphemy laws, at least 17 people convicted of blasphemy are on death row, and many others are serving life sentences for related offences.
The case of Asia Bibi, a Christian farm labourer who endured a decade-long ordeal over the accusation she had insulted the prophet Mohammed in a dispute with neighbours, drew international attention to the problem of the laws.
Bibi was originally sentenced to death in 2010, though that verdict was later overturned. In 2011, the governor of Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, and the minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, were murdered after they spoke in defence of Bibi and called for reform of blasphemy laws.
She was eventually given asylum in Canada but still receives death threats.
Since 1990, vigilantes have been accused of murdering 65 people tied to blasphemy, according to research compiled by the Pakistani thinktank the Centre for Research and Security Studies.
There was no comment from the government, a silence that veteran activist Ibn Abdur Rehman said was damning.
“Religious fanaticism is becoming unbearable in Pakistan. People are being killed in the name of religion. There is no check and balance. The government is clearly silent on this matter. This silence makes the government the culprit,” said Rehman, honorary spokesman for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.