Pakistani professor gets death sentence in blasphemy case

Pakistani police officers outside Multan jail, after a court's decision for a professor facing blasphemy case, on Dec 21, 2019. PHOTO: AP

MULTAN, PAKISTAN (AP, REUTERS) - A Pakistani court on Saturday (Dec 21) convicted a Muslim professor of blasphemy, sentencing him to death for allegedly spreading anti-Islamic ideas.

Junaid Hafeez has been held for six years awaiting trial. He's spent most of that time in solitary confinement because he would likely be killed if left with the general population, local media have reported.

Defence attorney Shahbaz Gormani said his client was wrongly convicted and that the verdict would be appealed.

Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law carries an automatic death penalty for anyone accused of insulting God, Islam or other religious figures.

While authorities have yet to carry out a death sentence for blasphemy, even the mere accusation can cause riots. Domestic and international human rights groups say blasphemy allegations have often been used to intimidate religious minorities and to settle personal scores.

A Punjab governor was killed by his own guard in 2011 after he defended a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was accused of blasphemy.

She was acquitted in January after spending eight years on death row in a case that drew international media attention. Faced with death threats from Islamic extremists upon her release, she flew to Canada to join her daughters in May.

Hafeez was arrested in 2013 for allegedly displaying blasphemous content while a visiting university lecturer in the city of Multan.

Prosecutor Athar Bukhari said Hafeez had spent three years in the United States under a special programme for Pakistani educators.

The prosecutor said investigators retrieved anti-religions material from Hafeez's laptop after his attest.

Hafeez was also fined half a million Pakistani rupees (S$4,300) on Saturday.

Hafeez's family and lawyers released a statement saying the trial had been marked by a "wave of fear" and intimidation after Hafeez's initial defence lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was shot and killed in 2014 after agreeing to take on the case. No one has been charged with that murder.

"The injustice done to Junaid Hafeez gives every concerned citizen of Pakistan an opportunity to raise pertinent questions about how the judicial institutions, prosecution service, the police and prison authorities work in this country," the statement said.

It continued: "Hafeez has already spent over six years in solitary confinement prior to conviction which amounts in itself to cruel and inhuman punishment." Hafeez, who quit his studies at Pakistan's top medical college to pursue a passion for art and literature, secured a Fulbright scholarship and attended Jackson State University where he majored in American literature, photography and theatre.

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