The United States urged Pakistan on Thursday to overhaul the country’s harsh blasphemy laws a day after a U.S. citizen accused of violating them was fatally shot in a courtroom.
The brazen killing has brought into sharp focus Pakistan’s much-maligned blasphemy laws, which critics say are often used to persecute and intimidate members of religious minorities.
The American, Tahir Ahmad Naseem, 57, was on trial in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar on charges that he had claimed to be a prophet. Naseem was shot six times Wednesday by a young man whom the authorities identified only as Faisal, 19, a local resident.
The killing, in a courtroom at the Peshawar Judicial Complex, drew strong condemnation from the U.S. government.
“We extend our condolences to the family of Tahir Naseem, the American citizen who was killed today inside a courtroom in Pakistan,” the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs said in a Twitter post Thursday. “We urge Pakistan to take immediate action and pursue reforms that will prevent such a shameful tragedy from happening again.”
Naseem was accused of blasphemy in 2018 on charges that carried penalties ranging from fines to death.
He had been a member of the Ahmadi sect, which has been declared heretical under the Pakistani Constitution and whose members face repeated persecution. However, representatives said Naseem had left the sect and had claimed to be the messiah and a prophet.
Blasphemy is a highly combustible and sensitive subject in Pakistan, with emotions flaring over mere rumors that Islam has been insulted. The government has never executed anyone under blasphemy laws, but people accused of it are often killed by mobs even before the police can take action, rights groups say.
Soon after the killing of Naseem, a video of the gunman was widely shared on social media. It showed him sitting on a courtroom bench while being held by police officers, and he is heard saying the Prophet Muhammad told him in a dream to kill Naseem.
“He is an enemy of Islam,” the gunman is heard saying of Naseem. “He is an enemy of Pakistan.”
Police officials said they were investigating how the attacker managed to bring a gun inside the high-security court compound.
Rights activists and rights groups have long campaigned against the blasphemy laws, saying they are used to oppress religious minorities and to settle personal feuds.
But hard-line Islamic religious parties have bitterly opposed moves to amend the laws. Mainstream political leaders acknowledge the misuse of the blasphemy laws but have mostly caved in to the pressures by religious parties not to change them and have dithered in taking a public stand against them.
In 2011, Salmaan Taseer, a prominent politician who was then the governor of Punjab province, had campaigned to change the blasphemy laws but was fatally shot by his police guard.
Taseer had been campaigning for the release of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was sentenced to death and imprisoned for eight years after being accused of blasphemy. The Supreme Court overturned her conviction in 2018, and she now lives in Canada.
The killing of Taseer was a chilling reminder of the dangers that outspoken secular politicians face in a deeply conservative and religious Pakistani society.