Human rights activists are voicing concern over a recent increase of blasphemy accusations against the Shiite minority community in Pakistan.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the country in August alone registered more than 40 blasphemy cases, with most of the charges targeting the Shiite community.
One of the Shiite-related cases is of Maruf Gul, a 61-year-old man from Charsada, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, who is now in police custody awaiting his trial.
Gul identifies as a Sunni Muslim but has been accused of being a Shiite who has questioned the story of Abraham offering to sacrifice his son Ismail to God. He was arrested on September 18 after a leader of Ahl-e Sunnat Wal Jamaat, a radical Sunni group, lodged a first incident report (FIR) against him.
Gul's son, Afsar Ali, told VOA that his father is innocent and that he has been targeted for befriending his landlord, who is a member of the Shiite sect.
"They have only sectarian differences," said Ali, adding that his father in a plea has clarified that he is a Sunni.
"But they still accuse him of being a Shiite. OK, you disagree with them [the Shiite community], but my father's only 'problem' was that he socialized with them."
Local police told VOA that Gul's case is under investigation and would be presented in the anti-terrorism court in Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
"Decisions would be taken based on the laws," said Kamran Bangash, the special assistant to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa chief minister for information.
"It is a very sensitive issue and should not be used to settle personal disputes," Bangash said.
Pakistan's penal code considers blasphemy a serious crime punishable by death. Although no one has been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, those accused are often killed by vigilantes.
The European Foundation for South Asian Studies in its 2020 report has found that more than 70 people with blasphemy accusations have been killed before their trials.
According to Amnesty International, Islamabad's laws concerning blasphemy are often used to go after marginalized people, including members of religious minorities such as the Shiites and Ahmadiyya.
The watchdog group says the laws are "broad, vague and coercive," violating the basic human rights of freedom of religion and expression.
Pakistan is a Sunni majority country of 220 million people, with the Shiites making up 10% to 15% of its population. The group is one of the main targets of Sunni extremist groups.
Waris Husain, a law professor at Howard University and former South Asia policy analyst at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told VOA that those who engage in mob violence often justify themselves as protecting the country's laws and values.
"The process is unfair for the accused individuals. I am very concerned about the blasphemy laws against the Shia," said Husain, adding that the law has exacerbated violence and sectarian division.
In July, a member of the Ahmadiyya community who was an American citizen with mental disabilities, Tahir Naseem, was fatally shot by a teenage assailant during his case hearing in the Peshawar High Court. The assailant, Faisal Khan, upon his arrest told police that he had killed Naseem for "blasphemy and for being an enemy of Islam."
Maruf Gul's family say they fear becoming the next victims of mob violence as authorities investigate the allegations against him. They say a group of locals in front of the police station were already threating to kill Gul and his family members soon after the case was registered against him.
"We were afraid that someone would come and start shooting, kidnap children or set ablaze our house," Gul's son, Ali, told VOA.
Husain of Howard University charged that the law in many cases is also abused for settling personal disputes.
"Simple disputes over property ownership or over tenant-landlord relationship can be used against minorities," he told VOA.
The HRCP said in a statement last month that the country's police must refrain from "so promptly" registering blasphemy cases "knowing full well the sensitive implications of doing so, when such complaints are often fabricated and spurred on by personal vendettas."
US call for reform
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) designated Pakistan as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in 2020 because of its "systematic enforcement" of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws.
Anurima Bhargava, the vice chair of USCIRF, told VOA that the Pakistani government needed to repeal the blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws to ensure human rights are protected in the country.
Stressing the need to prevent vigilantes from taking laws into their hands, she said the country also needed to "enforce the existing panel code articles that criminalize perjury, false accusations and abusing the legal process."