Tahir Ahmed Naseem, 47, died Wednesday in the northwestern city of Peshawar after a member of the public entered the courtroom and opened fire in front of the judge, according to officials. His assailant was arrested at the scene.
Naseem was on trial on blasphemy charges as he allegedly claimed to be a prophet, a crime punishable by death or life imprisonment under Pakistani penal code.
In a statement, the US State Department said officials were “shocked, saddened and outraged” by Naseem’s death. The statement said Naseem was “lured to Pakistan from his home in Illinois by individuals who later used Pakistan blasphemy laws to block him.”; He did not provide further details. Naseem had received consular assistance since his arrest in 2018.
According to a Peshawar police spokesman, the suspected killer told Naseem that he was an “enemy of religion” and that he deserved to be killed before opening fire.
Police are investigating how the suspect was able to enter the courtroom with a loaded weapon. Security guards are usually stationed outside court buildings and police officers guard individual courtrooms.
Weapons are hard to come by in Pakistan – civilians cannot buy a weapon or carry one without a valid license. Members of the public are also not usually allowed in local courtrooms, such as the one where Naseem was shot.
Blasphemy linked violence
The case has once again highlighted tensions over the country’s strict blasphemy laws, which have been linked to a number of violent acts, including at least one deadly shooting in recent years.
International human rights groups have widely condemned the law, which critics say has been disproportionately used against religious minority groups and to prosecute journalists critical of the Pakistani religious institution.
There are also fears that strict Islamic groups could end up hailing the Naseem attacker as a hero, as they have done in the past for the killers of those linked to blasphemy allegations.
His killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was immediately handed over to police and later executed. But for many strict Islamists, Qadri was a martyr and his tomb became a shrine for those who support the death sentence of Asia Bibi.
In that time, Rabia Mehmood, a former Amnesty International researcher, said Bibi’s case became so divisive that the Pakistani government had failed to take action to curb “the campaign of hatred and violence instigated by certain groups in the country”.