Charged with murder, Faisal Khan, a 15-year-old Pakistani, is being hailed as a “holy warrior” as he poses for selfies with lawyers and police.
Khan has been accused of gunning down in open court an American accused of blasphemy, a capital crime in Pakistan. But while lawyers line up to defend him, the attorney for Tahir Naseem, the U.S. citizen, has gone into hiding.
According to officials and witnesses, Khan got through three security checkpoints on his way into a courtroom in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar on July 29, pulled out a pistol and fired multiple shots into Naseem, 57, at a bail hearing.
Naseem’s killing grabbed global headlines, put a fresh spotlight on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and drew criticism from abroad, even as many in the country praised the shooter. The United States and human rights groups condemned the killing and urged changes to Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes, among the harshest in the world.
However, Khan is considered to be a hero at home. “It’s one of those cases where everyone wants to be his lawyer,” said Inamullah Yusufzai, who represented Khan at his first court hearing. Yusufzai said lawyers from across Pakistan had called to defend Khan for free, to support what they see as the justified killing of a heretic.
Thousands rallied, calling for Khan’s release. Delegations of well-wishers – lawyers, clerics, local politicians – have visited the Khan family home in Peshawar to congratulate the family. He has received messages of support from the Pakistani Taliban.
The U.S. State Department, in a statement said, Naseem “had been lured to Pakistan from his home in Illinois by individuals who then used Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to entrap him.” It called on Pakistan to reform its blasphemy laws and prosecuting Naseem’s killing.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry says a special team is investigating the case and it “will be dealt with in accordance with the law.”
But prosecuting Khan and any potential accomplices will be an immense challenge.
In blasphemy cases in Pakistan, “an accusation becomes a death sentence, whether carried out by the state or by mobs or vigilantes,” said Omar Waraich, head of South Asia for Amnesty International.
The rights group said in a 2016 report, “Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often used against religious minorities and others who are the target of false accusations, while emboldening vigilantes prepared to threaten or kill the accused.”