Pakistani relatives of suspects accused in a blasphemy lynching case speak outside the central jail after an anti-terrorist court's verdict in Haripur district on Wednesday. Last April, Mashal Khan, 23, was stripped, beaten and shot by a mob of mostly students before being thrown from the second floor of his dorm at the Abdul Wali Khan University in the northwestern city of Mardan. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

When an anti-terrorism court sentenced one man to death and 25 others to prison terms Wednesday in the slaying of a student last year in northwest Pakistan, the ruling was meant to send a strong warning that murder in the name of defending Islam would not be tolerated.

But the court’s decision immediately triggered large, angry protest rallies by religious groups in the area, along with homecoming celebrations for those acquitted of the mob beating and shooting death of Mashal Khan last April. Banners welcomed them as heroes of the faith.

The reaction has highlighted the growing nationwide fervor and confidence of Islamist forces who encourage violence against blasphemers and preach hatred of certain religious minorities. 

The movement, led by clerics from Pakistan’s largest and generally peaceful Sunni Muslim sect, has swelled since November, when a protest they staged in the capital, Islamabad, ended with the federal government capitulating to their major demands and calling in army leaders to negotiate.

Blasphemy has always been a sensitive issue in Pakistan, which is 95 percent Muslim, and where the laws against insulting Islam or the prophet Muhammad are among the harshest in the world. Charges of blasphemy are often misused to target minorities or personal enemies, and there have been numerous cases of mob violence over the years against people accused of blasphemy. 

But the frenzied fatal attack on Khan, 23, a freethinking journalism student at Abdul Wali Khan University in this bustling city, shocked the nation. As the first such attack in a university setting, it showed that the conservative anti-blasphemy cause was spreading beyond mosques and into the precincts of higher education.

In this April 22, 2017 file photo, members of a Pakistani civil society group demonstrate in Karachi, Pakistan, against the killing of university student Mashal Khan. (Fareed Khan/AP)

In the 10 months since the slaying, the national atmosphere has become even more polarized, and the Khan case has spawned organized rival groups, pitting several large conservative Muslim parties against lawyers, academics and rights activists. The liberal Pakistan Justice Party, led by former cricket star Imran Khan, heads the government of northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and supported the prosecution.

Of the defendants, 26 were acquitted. They were treated as heroes by some.

“We are proud to have been part of the killing of Mashal, and we will eliminate any such blasphemers in the future,” Ajmal Mayar told a cheering crowd in Mardan last week after he was released from prison. “Our friends convicted in the case are happy and confident,” he continued. “Punishments can’t shatter our courage.”

The crowd of thousands, led by local clerics, garlanded Mayar and other freed defendants with roses, then marched through the city with boisterous chants and banners that called for the sentences to be overturned and those convicted to be freed. Their leaders threatened to block major roads and highways in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province unless their demands were met.

On the other side of the divide, Liaqat Yousafzai, an activist in the northwest region who chairs the recently formed Mashal Forum, said he and his associates would pursue efforts to curb the abuse of blasphemy laws. He noted that a police investigation after Khan’s lynching found no evidence that he had committed blasphemy. 

“We were sure Mashal was innocent and now it is proven,” said Yousafzai, while visiting Khan’s family last week at their home in Swabi, about 25 miles from Mardan. The village was swarming with police, who had been sent to protect the Khans from attack.

“We will back his family in society as well as in court,” said Yousafzai. “The blasphemy issue is highly sensitive and taboo to discuss publicly. Anyone can be killed by labeling him or her as a blasphemer. Everyone should stand against the misuse of blasphemy and religion for personal feuds or interests.”

At his university, Khan was known as an outspoken, left-leaning young man who had posters of Karl Marx and Che Guevara in his room. He argued with some religious students and was disliked by some in the university administration. But he was also a top student, and his family said he was a practicing Muslim who would never defame his faith.

On April 13, according to police and prosecutors, he was accused by several students of sharing objectionable materials against Islam. More students gathered and started chanting slogans against him. The enraged group entered his room, where they beat, kicked and bludgeoned him to death, stripped him and took videos of his bloody corpse. 

Police arrested and charged scores of students, and the case was moved from Mardan to the city of Haripur to prevent violence. Three of those found guilty were not caught.

While religious groups were protesting the guilty verdicts, Khan’s relatives and supporters expressed concern about the acquittals, saying they would encourage others to commit similar violence on religious grounds. 

“My son was a symbol of knowledge, but he was brutally killed by a mob in the university. Now justice has been murdered in the court of law,” Syeda Gulzar Begum said at home after the verdicts were announced, seated amid a collection of Khan’s academic awards

Khan’s older brother Aimal said he was partly satisfied with the court ruling but worried that the acquittals would encourage future attacks. 

“I am scared that more innocent people will be killed on mere allegations by the mob,” he said.

Constable reported from Kabul.