ISLAMABAD • Police in Pakistan have arrested an imam for inciting violence after a 15-year-old boy, who was reported to have been mistakenly accused of blasphemy, cut off his own hand.
The boy, Anwar Ali, the devout son of a labourer, had been attending an evening prayer gathering last Monday at a mosque in the village of Khanqah, in eastern Punjab province, when the imam, Shabir Ahmad, asked for a show of hands of those who did not love Prophet Muhammad.
Thinking the cleric had asked for those who did love the Prophet, Anwar's hand shot up, according to witnesses and the boy's family. He realised his mistake when he saw that his was the only hand up and he quickly put it down.
But by then Ahmad was screaming "blasphemer" at him, along with many others in the crowd. "Don't you love your prophet?" they called, as the boy fled in disgrace.
Anwar went home, found a sharp scythe and chopped off his right hand that same night. He then went to the mosque to see Ahmad with a plate in his outstretched left hand. On it was the boy's freshly severed right hand. When he showed it to the cleric, he made clear it was an offering to absolve his perceived sin.
Ahmad then fled the mosque and left the village. Police, however, quickly caught him and locked him up, holding him on terrorism and other charges.
"There is no physical evidence against the cleric of involvement, but he has been charged for inciting and arousing the emotions of people to such a level that the boy did this act," district police chief Faisal Rana said.
The boy's family, however, argued that the cleric did nothing wrong and should not be punished.
"We are lucky that we have this son who loves Prophet Muhammad that much," Mr Muhammad Ghafoor, Anwar's father, said in a telephone interview. "We will be rewarded by God for this in the eternal world."
Anwar, too, declined to make any charge against the cleric. "What I did was for love of the Prophet Muhammad," he said.
Blasphemy is a toxic subject in Pakistan, where a confusing body of laws has enshrined it as a potentially capital offence, but also makes it nearly impossible for the accused to defend themselves in court. Even publicly repeating details of the accusation is tantamount to blasphemy in its own right. Such cases almost never make it to court, however.
The merest accusation that blasphemy has occurred has the power to arouse lynching or mob violence. The governor of Punjab, Mr Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his bodyguard in 2011, after Mr Taseer criticised the country's blasphemy laws and defended a Christian woman who had been falsely accused under them. The assassin is a national hero to many devout Pakistanis: His jail cell has become a pilgrimage site and a mosque was renamed to honour him.
On Monday, Pakistan lifted a three-year-old ban on YouTube, which it had shut down because of accusations of airing anti-Islamic videos. The government announced that Google, which owns YouTube, had agreed to give it the right to block objectionable content. The Pakistani government blocks thousands of Web pages it considers offensive.
NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE