Scholar's blasphemy trial enters final stages in Pakistan, US raises alarm

Reuters Islamabad, Pakistan Dec 11, 2019, 07.24 PM(IST)

Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive charge in conservative Muslim Pakistan and can carry the death penalty. Even unproven allegations can cause mob lynchings and violence. Photograph:( Zee News Network )

Story highlights

Insulting Islam's Prophet Mohammad carries a mandatory death penalty in Pakistan

A Pakistani court will hear final arguments on Thursday in the blasphemy trial of a liberal scholar and former university lecturer a week after a U.S. religious freedom commission placed his name on its list of global victims, his lawyer said.

Junaid Hafeez, who quit his studies at Pakistan's top medical college to pursue a passion for art and literature, secured a Fulbright scholarship and attended Jackson State University in 2009 where he majored in American literature, photography and theatre with distinction.

He has been in solitary confinement in Pakistan for fear of being attacked by fellow inmates in jail since his arrest in 2013 on blasphemy charges linked to online posts.

Insulting Islam's Prophet Mohammad carries a mandatory death penalty in Pakistan, which is about 95 per cent Muslim and has some of the harshest blasphemy laws in the world.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom said Hafeez and his family had been facing murder threats.

In 2013, students at a university in central Pakistan where Hafeez taught English literature accused him of blasphemous Facebook posts.

His lawyers say he was framed by students from an extremist Islamist party for his liberal and secular views.

"Hafeez has experienced extreme trauma to his mental and physical health," the commission wrote under his biodata on the global religious freedom list updated this week.

"It is a kind of a recognition that people are being persecuted in Pakistan for their belief and freedom of expression," his lawyer, Asad Jamal, told Reuters.

He said a judge would hear final arguments both from prosecution and defence on Thursday.

Since the trial began, several judges have backed out of hearing the case due to death threats.

"The lengthy trial is now on its eighth judge and the prosecution has repeatedly failed to produce evidence of the alleged blasphemy," the commission said, adding that one defence lawyer had been murdered.

No executions for blasphemy have been carried out in Pakistan but merely an allegation at times is enough for a mob to lynch someone accused of blasphemy.

The Centre for Social Justice, a rights group, says at least 1,549 people have faced blasphemy charges since 1987 and 75 of them were murdered.

A Christian woman spent eight years on death row falsely charged with blasphemy before she was acquitted and left the country. A provincial governor and a minister were killed for taking up her case.

Asia Bibi's release in October last year sparked rioting by hardline Islamists, who rejected the Supreme Court's verdict and warned Prime Minister Imran Khan's government that she must not be allowed to leave the country.