Pakistan: US national shot dead in blasphemy trial

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Tahir Ahmed Naseem, 47, died Wednesday in the northwestern town of Peshawar after a member of the public entered the courtroom and opened fire in front of the judge, according to officials. Her attacker was arrested at the scene.

Naseem was tried for blasphemy after claiming to be a prophet, a crime punishable by death or life imprisonment under Pakistan’s penal code.

In a statement, the US State Department said officials were “shocked, saddened and scandalized” by Naseem’s death. According to the statement, Naseem was “lured into Pakistan from his home in Illinois by individuals who then used Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to trap him.” He did not give more details. Naseem had been receiving consular assistance since his arrest in 2018.

“We extend our condolences to the family of Tahir Naseem, the American citizen who was killed today in a courtroom in Pakistan,” said the Office of South and Central Asian Affairs of the Department of State in a separate statement posted online Thursday. “We urge Pakistan to take immediate action and pursue reforms that will prevent such a shameful tragedy from happening again.”

According to a Peshawar police spokesperson, the suspected killer told Naseem that he was an “enemy of religion” and deserved to be killed before opening fire.Police are investigating how the suspect was able to enter the courtroom with a loaded gun. Security guards are generally stationed outside court buildings and police officers guard individual courtrooms.

Firearms are difficult to obtain in Pakistan – civilians cannot buy or carry them without a valid license. Members of the public are generally not allowed into local courtrooms, such as the one where Naseem was shot.

Blasphemy linked to violence

The case has once again highlighted tensions over the country’s strict blasphemy laws, which have been linked to a number of acts of violence, including at least one deadly shooting in recent years.

International human rights groups have widely condemned the law, which critics say is used disproportionately against minority religious groups and to target journalists critical of the Pakistani religious establishment.

According to a country report by nonprofit group Human Rights Watch last year, at least 17 people remain on death row over allegations of blasphemy. Most of them belong to religious minorities.

However, violence against those who criticize the blasphemy law has had a “chilling effect” on law reform efforts, HRW said.

There are also fears that die-hard Islamist groups will end up hailing the Naseem attacker as a hero, as they have done in the past for the killers of people linked to blasphemy charges.

In 2010, Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death. The following year, the governor of the Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was shot dead by his own bodyguard for expressing his support for Bibi and for condemning the country’s strict blasphemy laws.

His assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, immediately surrendered to the police and was subsequently executed. But for many die-hard Islamists, Qadri was a martyr, and his grave became a sanctuary for those who supported Asia Bibi’s death sentence.

After Bibi’s acquittal by the Supreme Court in 2018, Maulana Sami ul Haq, a Pakistani political and religious leader known as the “father of the Taliban”, was assassinated for asking for his decision to be overturned.

At the time, Rabia Mehmood, a former Amnesty International researcher, said Bibi’s case had become so controversial because the Pakistani government failed to take action to curb “the campaign of hatred and violence instigated by certain groups in the country”.

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