Pakistan court hands down death sentence to scholar accused of blasphemy

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Pakistani anti-terrorism court on Saturday sentenced a liberal scholar and former university lecturer to death on blasphemy charges.

In 2013, Junaid Hafeez was accused by students at the university where he taught of making blasphemous Facebook posts. Insulting Islam’s Prophet Mohammad carries a mandatory death penalty in Pakistan, which is about 95% Muslim.

His lawyers say he was framed by students from an extremist Islamist party for his liberal and secular views and this month a U.S. religious freedom commission placed Hafeez on its list of global victims.

“He (Junaid Hafeez) shall be hanged by neck till his death subject to its confirmation by the honorable high court,” a court order stated.

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 defense 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 theater.

The trial was held in a prison in the central Pakistan city of Multan under tight security due to threats to Hafeez’s family and his lawyer. The case has run for more than six years after a series of delays in court and has been presided over by seven different judges in that time.

Hafeez’s family and lawyers said they would file an appeal against the verdict in the high court.

The Centre for Social Justice, a rights group, says at least 1,549 people have faced blasphemy charges in Pakistan since 1987 and 75 of them were murdered.

Reporting by Asif Shazhad in Islamabad, Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore; Editing by Frances Kerry