In July, Tahir Ahmad Naseem was shot dead in a high-security courtroom in Pakistan. He was on trial for blasphemy. The teenager who pulled the trigger, Faisal Khan, was arrested after the shooting and charged with murder. But he was also feted as a “holy warrior”.
Thousands have turned out at rallies in his support, selfies have surfaced online showing him grinning beside an elite police officer giving a thumbs up, and lawyers are vying to represent him.
However, Mashal Naseem, 20, living in Illinois, began to fear that the pain of losing her father would be multiplied by watching his killer evade accountability for his crime.
So, she began a campaign, seeking justice for her father – including life without parole for his killer – and reform of the laws that made him a target in the first place.
An online petition she launched has drawn more than 50,000 signatures. It has also made Mashal a target for religious extremists, who have flooded her inbox with death threats and insults.
“I’ve been given some really, really nasty threats about how people want whatever happened to my dad to happen to me,” she said.
But they have not deterred her and she is already used to shrugging off the online death threats.
“I will stand for justice for my dad, and if something happens to me, at least I went in the way of trying to fight for justice,” she said.
In Pakistan, Blasphemy is an inflammatory issue where even unproven accusations of insulting Islam can spark lynchings. Human rights activists say charges are frequently used to settle personal scores.
The case of Asia Bibi, a Christian farm labourer who endured a decade-long ordeal over the accusation she had insulted the prophet Muhammad in a dispute with neighbours, drew international attention to the problem.
Mashal, her sister and brother, frequently visited Pakistan throughout their childhood, but she had never even heard of the law until two years ago, when relatives called to say that Tahir had been arrested under it.
“It was a school night, I remember, and we got a call from one of our uncles who said … that he was actually in jail. It was a complete shock to me.”
At first, she struggled to understand how expressing a religious opinion could be a crime that carries the death penalty. “It was just so confusing for me that he stated his opinion, he stated his beliefs, and then he’s locked up. It was even harder to explain to my friends and family … because nobody here in the US would ever think that by simple word of mouth, you can get arrested.”
Tahir was born in Pakistan, and as a teenager moved to the US where he became a naturalised citizen. His jobs included working as a linguist for the military, and as a school bus driver, but Mashal said sometimes he was also a stay-at-home dad, taking care of the children while her mother went to work.
“He was such a kind soul, never did wrong to anyone, and if he ever got angry at us, he would immediately try to make us laugh again, because he didn’t want us to be upset,” Mashal said.
She believes he was lured into a trap by extremists who befriended him on Facebook. They challenged him to a religious debate, promising it would be an open discussion, but had lined up police to arrest him on the basis of views he had expressed online.
“You don’t ever want to trust the random stranger on the internet, but I feel like my dad he was just naive in that sense that he thought that everyone was truthful, because he himself was a truthful person,” she said.
The two years that followed her father’s arrest were difficult, with what she describes as “the bare minimum” of support from the US embassy, and no sense for the family that it was a political priority.
“They knew about the dangers of his case,” she said. “And so the fact that it happened under their watch, it’s just disappointing.”
Mashal says his lawyer – who has now reportedly gone into hiding – thought there was a good chance he would be acquitted. She believes that is why he was shot.
Now she fears backing for the killer in Pakistan, from both the public and agents of the state like police, means he may evade justice – though another man who shot dead a politician over blasphemy laws was hanged two years ago for the killing.
The state department has condemned the killing and called for the suspect to be prosecuted, and the Oklahoma senator James Lankford has raised Tahir’s case in Congress.
But Mashal says she wants action, not promises from authorities. She is also grieving the lack of support inside the country her father considered a second home, and fears she may never be able to visit again.
“Right now, I know that it’s not ideal for me to go back, because being related to my dad could get me killed,” she said. “It’s just very, very heartbreaking and sad that … people would do this to us, to their own, that they would turn their back on us.”