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Pakistan's blasphemy vigilantes kill exonerated man

By Nick Paton Walsh, CNN
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Blasphemy vigilantes track down victim
  • Despite being cleared of blasphemy, Mohamed Imran was killed by vigilantes
  • Some observers see climate of rage around blasphemy laws as part of rise in fundamentalism in Pakistan
  • Punjab governor Salman Taseer and minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti also killed for criticizing blasphemy laws

Talahore, Pakistan (CNN) -- Mohamed Imran had been accused, jailed, tried and cleared: if anything, society owed him a debt as a man wrongfully accused.

But his crime was blasphemy. He was meant to have said something derogatory about the prophet Mohammed, so in Pakistan justice worked a little differently.

Two weeks after he returned to his small patch of farmland on the rustic outskirts of Islamabad, his alleged crime caught up with him.

Two gunmen burst into the shoe shop where he was sat talking to a friend. Imran tried to duck, to seek cover behind the man next to him -- terrified so greatly for his own life that he perhaps forgot about those around him.

But the gunmen found their target and Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws claimed another victim.

His brother Ikram told CNN: "When I saw him lying there, I felt the blood leave my body, and that I was now alone."

When I saw him lying there, I felt the blood leave my body, and that I was now alone.
--Ikram Imran, brother of blasphemy vigilante victim
Pakistan's blasphemy laws under scrutiny
2010: Sentenced to death for blasphemy
  • Pakistan
  • Shahbaz Bhatti
  • Religion

Now Ikram has only his brother's unmarked grave to visit, next to the plot of land close to what was once the source of Mohamed Imran's livelihood. This farmland no longer feeds his family, who have moved away to live under the charity of a friend. The threats remained.

We found his daughter, four-year old Kazma who knew her father was dead but somehow felt he would come back. His wife was in tears, but remarkably maintained that the blasphemy laws were important as they protect the Muslim faith. It was hard to tell whether she believed that or was speaking out of self-preservation.

Two high-profile politicians have this year been assassinated for their criticism of the blasphemy laws: Punjab governor Salman Taseer and minorities minister (and Christian) Shahbaz Bhatti.

Some observers see their deaths and the climate of rage around the blasphemy laws as symptomatic of a broader rise in fundamentalist tendencies in Pakistan.

Others say that religion is all many people have, given the levels of poverty and state dysfunction, and that they don't like it being insulted. It's reported that more than 30 of the hundreds of people convicted under the blasphemy laws have been killed by vigilantes. The state has yet to execute anyone for this crime.

The curious part about this blasphemy case -- and many other such convictions and allegations under the controversial law -- is that they do not specify what the accused is meant to have said.

The first complaint delivered to the police in 2009 refers to a conversation Imran allegedly had with another man in a cafe, but says the exact blasphemous phrase cannot be repeated as that too would be an act of blasphemy.

By the time we get to the court appearance earlier this year, the charge is clearer (but we won't repeat it here, given the sensitivity of the matter). You are left wondering whether by this stage of the case many had already found reason to damn Imran.

All the same, this level of evidence was not enough for the judge, who released Imran. But it was enough for the gunmen.

We went into the nearby town to talk to clerics at the local mosque. Some accused these holy men of fueling the anger against Imran. Incidentally, Imran was a Shia, and hence a minority often targeted in Pakistan.

As soon as we got out of the car near the mosque and showed our cameras, tempers frayed. They didn't care why we were there, they just saw us as outsiders, perhaps American spies.

We left promptly, ever more aware of the growing rage on Pakistan's ordinary streets, fueled by generations of poverty, decades of what many see as government ineptitude and years of foreign intervention.