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Mashal Khan murder sparks blasphemy debate in Pakistan

S Khan
March 22, 2019

Mashal Khan, a student in Pakistan, was accused of blasphemy and killed by a mob in 2017. Now, the trial to convict his killers has raised questions about whether legal punishments will help prevent future hate crimes.

Protests in Pakistan after a mob murdered Mashal Khan
Image: picture-alliance/AP/F. Khan

Twenty-three-year-old Mashal Khan was a student of mass communications at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, in Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. He was beaten and shot to death by an angry mob on April 13, 2017, after being accused of blasphemy. The lynching took place within the premises of the university. Soon after, a video of the incident was shared on social media.

According to Mashal Khan's legal team in June 2017, a 13-member joint investigation team (JIT) concluded in its report that the allegations of blasphemy were unfounded and were used as a pretext to incite a mob against the student. The JIT found that Mashal had been vocal about the rights of students at the university, challenging the appointment of a new vice chancellor for reasons related to students' obtaining their degrees. The investigation also exposed illegal and criminal activities taking place, including the harassment of female students.

Altogether, 61 people were initially charged for their alleged involvement, with 57 being sentenced and four acquitted of all charges. Those recently convicted included Arif Khan, a councillor belonging to Prime Minister Imran Khan's party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). The court said Arif provoked and instigated a mob of students against the victim. Two other accused were released.

"After the unfortunate incident, four of the accused had fled and they were arrested a few months ago. [The] verdict was against these four accused, with two of them released and two others handed down life imprisonment. We will appeal in the high court against the release of the two," Shahab Khattak, one of the lawyers representing Mashal Khan's family, told DW.

He also clarified that one of the guilty persons was sentenced to death and five others sent to prison for life. Twenty-five others were given a four-year jail term each. Now, the high court will hear the appeals of all convicts.

Although the family of Mashal Khan has expressed satisfaction over the verdict, Mashal's relatives feel that more needs to be done. Muhammad Iqbal, a poet and the father of Mashal Khan, told DW that he wanted all those who were involved in the murder to be convicted: "The murder of my son did not happen in any cave or in rugged mountains infested by militants and extremists. He was mercilessly lynched in broad daylight in an urban area. At least 57 fanatics participated in the lynching, of these, 26 were released. We have appealed against their release and I will go to any extent to get them convicted."

Rise in blasphemy-related killings

Blasphemy, the supposed "insult" of a religion, in this case of the Prophet Muhammad, is a crime in the South Asian country, where 97 percent of the 180 million people are Muslim. Rights activists claim the law is often used to settle petty disputes or personal vendettas.

Protests in Pakistan after a mob murdered Mashal Khan
Image: Getty Images/AFP/B. Khan

Despite convictions in Mashal's case and several others before, incidents of blasphemy-related lynching have not subsided. On Wednesday, a student in Bahawalpur in Pakistan's Punjab province killed a professor on a college campus of a college for merely organizing a farewell party. The killer believed the professor's gathering, which included men and women, was un-Islamic. The incident shocked progressive circles of the country, who feel the space for liberal ideas is increasingly shrinking.

Bahawalpur also serves as the headquarters of Jaish-e-Mohammad, a militant outfit, which India blames for attacking a military convoy in India-administered Kashmir in February. In the last years, religious seminaries have mushroomed in the city, with a university lecturer languishing in jail for years on blasphemy charges. Similarly, in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, an Urdu language professor is in prison on charges of insulting Islam.

Recently, a mentally ill person belonging to the Christian community was charged under the blasphemy law after a mob thrashed him in Punjab's Sialkot district. The community of Christians in the district is living in fear after the incident. Like Pakistan's Christians, most blasphemy victims are from marginalized sections of society and any attempt to reform the blasphemy law could trigger a backlash.

In the past, a Christian federal minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, and the former Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, were killed for making demands to amend the law or stop its misuse. Taseer's assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was handed the death penalty and hanged a few years ago, but this did not help prevent the wave of extremism. Instead, his followers declared him a hero, constructing a shrine on his grave close to the federal capital that is visited by thousands of people every year.

Similarly, people accused in Mashal's murder case, who were released some time back, were given a warm welcome, and many liberals fear that the convicted in this case will also be accorded a heroic status.

Protests in Pakistan after a mob murdered Mashal Khan
Image: Getty Images/AFP/F. Naeem

'No encouragement' for extremist groups

Given the circumstances, rights activists are not optimistic. "I do not think it will help reduce such incidents," Asad Iqbal Butt of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent rights group that tracks human rights violations and such incidents, told DW about bringing the murderers to book.

"Until and unless we change our syllabus, crack down on extremist elements and take action against religious seminaries spreading hate, nothing will improve. We also need to change our state policy. We should not encourage extremist groups to set up religious seminaries in a bid to prepare jihadis [fighters] for waging wars in other countries. Such elements do not harm other countries only, they also wreak havoc in Pakistan, killing thousands of innocent (people)," he added.

Mashal's father agrees with Butt: "I think our syllabus [school subjects] and narrative need to be changed. We need to appoint teachers in schools and other educational institutions that do not propagate hatred and do not contaminate the minds of our children. We need to give the message of humanity to our new generations. Otherwise such incidents will continue [to happen]."