With the world still stunned by the massacre in Paris, Pakistan is living through yet another example of the brutal street justice that is meted out here when someone is accused of disrespecting the prophet Muhammad.
On Wednesday morning, masked gunmen kidnapped a 52-year-old man from his house in eastern Punjab province. A little later, Aabid Mehmood’s body was found riddled with bullets in a nearby village.
Police are investigating the case, but it appears that Mehmood may have been executed in connection with three-year-old allegations that he had disrespected the Islamic faith.
Mehmood, who is thought to suffer from mental illness, was accused of blasphemy in 2011 after he allegedly told someone that he was a prophet.
In Pakistan — officially the Islamic Republic of Pakistan — there can be only one prophet. And the country's strict blasphemy law states that anyone who insults Muhammad — even by “innuendo” — can be accused of the crime, which is punishable by death.
Mehmood was spared a death sentence, but he spent more than two years in prison. He was released several months ago because of his medical condition, said Muhammad Ayub, a local police official.
On Wednesday, according to Ayub, unknown gunmen took Mehmood from his home and shot him in the head and chest before dumping his body.
“We are investigating the murder and looking into all angles, including the possibility of personal enmity,” Ayub told The Washington Post.
In the Paris attack, authorities suspect that the gunmen may have targeted the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo because some of its cartoons lampooned Muhammad. The gunmen were heard shouting “we have avenged the prophet” after they slaughtered 10 magazine employees and two police officers.
On Thursday, the Islamabad government condemned the Paris attack, saying Pakistan “deplores terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.”
“We extend our condolences to the government and people of France on the loss of life,” the Pakistani Foreign Office said in a statement. “We are confident that the international community will continue to stand firm against terrorism and bring the perpetrators of terrorist acts to justice.”
Yet, the Paris massacre is also refocusing attention on Pakistan’s own history of punishing — or failing to protect — those suspected of blasphemy.
Thirty-eight people in Pakistan are serving life sentences or are on death row after being accused of blasphemy, according to Knox Thames, director of policy and research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Five of them were convicted in 2014, the same year that a high court upheld the death sentence for a Christian woman accused of defaming Muhammad during a 2010 argument with co-workers.
For many blasphemy suspects, however, the real death sentence all too often comes at the hands of enraged mobs.
In early November, a Christian couple on the outskirts of Lahore were reportedly beaten and burnt alive in a brick kiln after neighbors accused them of desecrating a Koran.
Two days later, also in Punjab province, a police officer “hacked a man to death” with an axe after the prisoner allegedly insulted the prophet, Reuters news agency reported at the time.
In September, a police officer shot and wounded a 70-year-old British man who was in prison on blasphemy charges.
In all, more than 30 people have been killed in Pakistan over the past five years for alleged blasphemy, according to statistics published by the Economist.
“Extremists victimize not just non-Muslims but Muslims who dissent from the extremists' radical interpretations of Islam,” Thames wrote in a recent article for Foreign Policy. “Impunity increasingly reigns, as militants and mobs regularly perpetrate attacks with little or no state response.”
And even when dead, a person accused of blasphemy in Pakistan can still be victimized.
After relatives retrieved Mehmood’s body, “a group of enraged people” showed up in his village and refused to allow him to be buried in a local cemetery, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported.