Human rights organizations are demanding the release of a 33-year-old university lecturer who has been in solitary confinement since 2014. His family told DW the blasphemy allegations were fabricated by Islamists.
Amnesty International last week demanded that Pakistani authorities immediately and unconditionally release Junaid Hafeez, a 33-year-old lecturer at the Bahauddin Zakariya University in the eastern city of Multan.
In 2013, Hafeez was charged in a blasphemy case over a Facebook page. The young lecturer has been held in solitary confinement since June 2014. If convicted, he faces the death penalty under Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws.
The US government has also urged Pakistani authorities to free Hafeez, with Vice President Mike Pence explicitly mentioning the lecturer's ordeal in a July statement.
In 2010, Hafeez, a resident of Rajanpur town in Punjab province, returned to Pakistan to teach English literature at the Bahauddin Zakariya University after finishing his studies in the US. At the time of his arrest, he was already a Fulbright scholar and was appreciated for his academic work.
Hafeez's father told DW that his son was a victim of university politics, as he was disliked by an Islamist student organization because of his liberal views.
"In 2013, the university advertised a post for a lecturer. The members of the Islamist Jamiat-e-Talaba organization told him to not apply for the job as they wanted their own people to get it," said Hafeez-ul Naseer.
"The group launched a malicious campaign against my son, distributing pamphlets and accusing him of blasphemy. They said he was an American agent," Naseer said.
"My son, who came back from the US to serve his country, was later arrested by police on blasphemy charges," he added.
The ordeal of Hafeez's family continued even after his arrest. No lawyer in Multan city wanted to take up his case.
Blasphemy is a sensitive topic in Pakistan, where 97% of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslim. Rights activists have demanded reforms of controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. Activists say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas.
According to rights groups, around 1,549 blasphemy cases have been registered in Pakistan between 1987 and 2017. More than 75 people have been killed extra-judicially on blasphemy allegations. Some of them were even targeted after being acquitted in blasphemy cases by courts.
"Finally, Rashid Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan took up my son's case, but he was gunned down on May 7, 2014 in his office," Naseer said.
Hafeez has been languishing in jail ever since. His father said the family has been living under constant fear as they could also be targeted by extremists.
Ray of hope
The Pakistani Supreme Court recently acquitted Waji-ul Hasan, a man accused of blasphemy, after 17 years in prison.
"The release of Asia Bibi [a Christian woman who had been on death row on blasphemy charges for ten years] and Hasan gives me some hope. Maybe they will release my son too," Naseer said.
Read more: The case of Asia Bibi in Pakistan
Mehdi Hasan, the chairman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says that Hasan's release after 17 years in prison is a positive sign. "It [the decision] is very late, but must be appreciated. It is high time Pakistan amends the blasphemy law. But religious groups don't want it; they even oppose a fair trial in blasphemy cases," Hasan told DW.
Prominent Christian activist Joseph Francis believes there will be no recourse for people like Juanid Hafeez and Waji-ul Hasan until the blasphemy law is repealed. "This law is discriminatory; it targets minorities and vulnerable sections of society," Francis told DW.
In May, Bibi left for Canada to join her family after the authorities acquitted her of blasphemy charges. Her case had attracted international attention, with many Western countries rejecting both capital punishment and the concept of blasphemy.
Rights activists hope that Hafeez's plight would receive a similar international reaction.
Persecution of religious minorities
Pakistan's Christians and other religious minorities have often complained of legal and social discrimination in the country. In the past few years, many Christians and Hindus have been brutally murdered over unproven blasphemy allegations.
In one case, a young Christian girl with Down syndrome was accused in August 2012 of burning pages upon which verses of the Koran were inscribed.
Rimsha Masih was taken into police custody and only released months later, when charges were dropped. The case caused an uproar in her hometown and beyond and sparked riots and violence against Christians in the region. In 2013, she and her family relocated to Canada.
In 2014, a Christian couple was beaten to death for allegedly desecrating a copy of the Koran. Their bodies were subsequently burned in a brick kiln.
In September last year, a Christian man in Pakistan was sentenced to death for sharing "blasphemous" material on WhatsApp.