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Vigilante justice reigns strong in Pakistan

Violence in Pakistan
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Religious students and activists protest in Islamabad on March 8, demanding the removal of all blasphemous content from social media.
Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images
Religious students and activists protest in Islamabad on March 8, demanding the removal of all blasphemous content from social media.
A journalism student was beaten to death for apparent blasphemy in a Pakistani university on April 13, in another example of rising intolerance and mob violence.

The attack occurred at Abdul Wali Khan University in the northern Pakistani city of Maradan, with footage circulating online of the merciless attack by a large crowd of vigilantes beating Mashal Khan, the 23-year-old student. It followed a debate within a university dormitory in which Mr. Khan was accused of making statements offensive to Islam. Three hours before his death, he was one of three students named by university officials as being investigated for “blasphemous statements”.

The student’s family were subject to hate speech through loud speakers at his funeral from local clerics. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the attack on April 15, saying he was "shocked and saddened by the senseless display of mob justice that resulted in the murder of a young student". From the footage, 20 people have been identified as culpable for the killing, with 15 arrested.

Blasphemy remains illegal in Pakistan, and its anti-blasphemy laws are according to some experts the strictest in the Muslim world. Punishments range from small fines to a mandatory death penalty for derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad. Dozens of Pakistanis are currently sitting on death row on these charges.  

Activists argue that blasphemy laws have dire implications for religious minorities which are often subject to social and legal discrimination. In a 2010 report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Aasia Bibi, an illiterate Christian farmhand from Punjab, was sentenced to death following an altercation with farm workers who had refused to drink water she had touched due to her faith. As of 2017, Ms. Bibi is still awaiting her fate on death row.

The Pakistani government is facing international pressure to repeal blasphemy laws. From 1987 to 2014 more than 1,300 people were charged with blasphemy, and at least 65 vigilante murders have been recorded since 1990 according to the Centre for Research and Security Studies.

Critics suggest unforgiving official attitudes towards blasphemy have fed public hysteria in recent decades, contributing to a rise in vigilante violence. HRW suggested that extreme violence such as Mr. Khan’s murder is a product of wider political and social intolerance in the country, accusing the government of “enabling atrocities” by seldom bringing charges against those responsible for violence and discrimination.
Alastair McCready
The World Weekly
20 April 2017 - last edited 20 April 2017