ISLAMABAD - A court in Pakistan Saturday sentenced a 33-year-old scholar, accused of blasphemy, to death after a trial that lasted six years and was mired by delays due to multiple changes in judges and the murder of a defense lawyer.
Junaid Hafeez was charged with insulting the religious beliefs of Muslims of Pakistan, claiming the Quran was derived from Mesopotamian folk tales, and keeping material in his computer that included derogatory remarks about the prophet of Islam.
The initial police report also accused him of running two Facebook groups that posted blasphemous content.
His family and lawyers claimed the charges against him are fabricated and a result of politics at the university where he was teaching as a visiting lecturer.
Hafeez's father told German news outlet Deutsche Welle that his son was disliked by a conservative Islamist student organization at Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, one of the biggest cities in the southern Punjab region, because of his liberal views.
"In 2013, the university advertised a post for a lecturer. The members of the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba organization told him to not apply for the job as they wanted their own people to get it," Hafeez-ul Naseer told Deutsche Welle earlier this year, adding that fake blasphemy charges were logged when his son refused.
The independent nonprofit group Human Rights Commission of Pakistan expressed dismay at Saturday's verdict, saying, "In five years, at least eight judges have heard Mr Hafeez’s case, making a fair trial virtually impossible."
On the other hand, the prosecutor, Chaudhry Ziaur Rehman, said the case was decided on merit.
"Three students of the English department and a Ph.D. professor gave testimony as to how the defendant committed blasphemy," he said.
Hafeez, who was indicted in 2014, was kept in jail in solitary confinement because of threats to his life. The issue was so sensitive in religiously conservative Pakistan that even his trial was held inside the jail.
In addition, lawyers defending Hafeez faced serious threats. In 2014, defense counsel Rashid Rehman was threatened during a hearing of the trial in front of the judge.
One month later, he was murdered.
One of the lawyers, Zulfiqar Sidhu, who publicly threatened Rehman in a press conference in 2014, aided the prosecution in this case.
Human rights groups from around the world have demanded swift a remedy for Hafeez.
“Junaid’s lengthy trial has gravely affected his mental and physical health, endangered him and his family and exemplifies the misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The authorities must release him immediately and unconditionally and drop all charges against him,” Amnesty International said in a statement issued in September.
Multiple governments from around the world, including the United States government, also demanded relief for him.
“In Pakistan, Professor Junaid Hafeez remains in solitary confinement on unsubstantiated charges of blasphemy,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told a religious freedom summit in Washington earlier this year.
A Fulbright scholar, Hafeez briefly attended Jackson State University in the U.S. state of Mississippi before returning to Pakistan in 2010. He was often accused by Islamist student groups on campus of being too liberal.
Human rights activists claim that blasphemy accusations in Pakistan are often misused to target religious minorities, threaten, blackmail, or settle other scores.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court, in a judgment last year acquitting a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, in a blasphemy case said fake accusations against were leveled against her after a fight between her and some Muslim women.
The issue is so explosive that scores of people in Pakistan have been murdered by individuals or lynched by a mob over mere accusations of blasphemy over the years.
In 2017, an angry mob in a university in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province not only killed a student, Mashaal Khan, over suspicion of blasphemy, but defiled and dragged his body around. Police could not find any evidence of blasphemy against him, but his friends claimed he was a frequent critic of the university administration over mismanagement.
In 2011, a powerful political figure, Salman Taseer, was gunned down by his own bodyguard for supporting a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, facing a blasphemy trial, and demanding a change in the country’s blasphemy laws.
The gunman Mumtaz Qadri was hailed as a hero by many in the country and dozens of lawyers were willing to fight his case free of charge.