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ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - The United States has denounced the killing inside a courtroom of a naturalized U.S. citizen on trial for blasphemy in Pakistan.

Tahir Ahmed Naseem, a 47-year-old resident from Illinois, was shot several times in front of the judge during a Wednesday hearing in the northwestern city of Peshawar. He was on trial for allegedly claiming to be a prophet of Islam, a crime punishable by death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

“We are shocked, saddened, and outraged that American citizen Tahir Naseem was killed…inside a Pakistani courtroom,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement issued on Thursday.

The judicial proceedings against Naseem had been under way since 2018, when he was arrested for allegedly claiming to be the "last messenger of God” in online conversations with his Facebook friends in Pakistan.

“Mr. Naseem had been lured to Pakistan from his home in Illinois by individuals who then used Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to entrap him,” the U.S. statement lamented.

It noted that the U.S. government had been providing consular assistance to the victim and his family and “called the attention of senior Pakistani officials to his case to prevent the type of shameful tragedy that eventually occurred.”

Pakistani police swiftly arrested the young assailant, who later took responsibility for killing Naseem for having committed blasphemy and for being an enemy of Islam.

“We grieve with the family of Mr. Naseem. We urge Pakistan to immediately reform its often-abused blasphemy laws and its court system, which allow such abuses to occur, and to ensure that the suspect is prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” the U.S. State Department said.

Security is usually tight around the court during cases related to blasphemy offenses because it is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan. Police said an investigation was underway to determine how the assailant managed to carry the weapons into the courtroom.

Sam Brownback, U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, said he was disturbed by reports that a U.S. citizen was murdered while standing trial for blasphemy. “We call on @PakPMO and the Government of Pakistan to ensure the perpetrator is held accountable and investigate this egregious courtroom security lapse,” Brownback tweeted.

The latest act of violence associated with Pakistan’s blasphemy laws has renewed calls for reforming them to prevent their misuse and to deter such incidents. But attempts by successive governments to reform the laws have failed under pressure from Islamic groups in the country.

Domestic and international human rights groups maintain blasphemy charges are often fabricated by influential people in Pakistan to intimidate religious minorities and settle personal feuds with rival Muslim groups.

Dozens of people are known to have been killed for allegedly committing blasphemy in Pakistan. Even mere accusations in certain instances have triggered mob lynchings of suspected blasphemers. The victims include doctors, teachers, lawyers and high-profile political figures.

In a landmark 2018 judgment, the country's Supreme Court acquitted a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, of blasphemy charges after she spent eight years on death row in a case that drew global attention.

Bibi has since secured asylum in Canada along with her family, to escape death threats from Islamists in Pakistan after her acquittal.

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