Tahir Ahmed Naseem, 47, died on Wednesday in the northwestern city of Peshawar after a member of the public left the courtroom and opened fire on the judge, according to officials. His assailant was arrested on the spot.
Naseem was on trial on charges of blasphemy after allegedly claiming to be a prophet, a crime punishable by death or life in prison under Pakistan’s penal code.
In a statement, the U.S. State Department said officers were “shocked, saddened, and overwhelmed” by Naseem’s death. The statement said Naseem had “been lured to Pakistan from his home in Illinois by individuals who then used Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to intrude on him.”; He offered no further details. Naseem has been receiving consular assistance since his arrest in 2018.
According to a Peshawar police spokesman, the alleged killer told Naseem that he was an “enemy of religion” and that he deserved to be killed before opening fire.
Police are investigating how the suspect could enter the courtroom with his weapon loaded. Security guards are typically stationed outside the court building and police officers guard individual courtrooms.
Guns are hard to obtain in Pakistan – civilians cannot buy a weapon or carry one without a valid license. Members of the public are generally not allowed to enter local courtrooms, such as the one where Naseem was killed.
Blasphemy linked to violence
The case has once again highlighted tensions over the country’s strict blasphemy laws, which have been linked to a number of violent acts, including at least one fatal shooting in recent years.
International human rights groups have strongly condemned the law, which critics allege is being used disproportionately against minority religious groups and to go after journalists critical of the Pakistani religious establishment.
There are also fears that strong Islamist groups may end up portraying Naseem’s attacker as a hero, as they have done in the past to killers of those connected with blasphemy accusations.
His killer, Mumtaz Qadri, immediately surrendered to police and was later executed. But for many harsh Islamists, Qadri was a martyr, and his grave became a sanctuary for those who support Asia Bibi’s death sentence.
At that time, Rabia Mehmood, a former Amnesty International researcher, said Bibi’s case had become so divisive as the Pakistani government failed to take steps to curb “the campaign of hatred and violence incited by certain groups in the country. “