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 attacker was apprehended at the scene.
Naseem was tried on charges of blasphemy after allegedly claiming to be a prophet, a crime punishable by death, or life imprisonment under the Pakistan Penal Code.
The U.S. State Department said in a statement that officials were “shocked, upset and outraged” by Naseem’s death. The statement said Naseem was “lured to Pakistan from his home in the state of Illinois by individuals who then used Pakistan̵7;s blasphemy laws to mislead him.” He did not offer any further details. Naseem has been providing consular assistance since his arrest in 2018.
According to a Peshawar police spokesman, the suspected killer told Naseem he was an “enemy of religion” and deserved to be killed before the fire opened.
Police are investigating how the suspect was able to enter the courtroom with a loaded gun. Security guards are not usually in court buildings, but police officers guard separate court premises.
It is difficult to acquire weapons in Pakistan – civilians cannot acquire or carry a weapon without a valid license. Members of the public are also generally not admitted to a local courtroom, such as the one where Naseem was shot.
The case reiterated tensions over the country’s strict blasphemy laws over a number of acts of violence, including at least one deadly shooting in recent years.
International human rights groups have widely condemned the law, which critics claim is disproportionately used against minority religious groups and to track down journalists who criticize Pakistan’s religious institution.
There are also fears that hard-line Islamist groups could hear Naseem’s attacker as a hero, as he did in the past for murderers on charges of blasphemy.
His killer Mumtaz Qadri immediately surrendered to the police and was later executed. For many strict Islamists, however, Qadri was a martyr and his grave became a shrine to those who support the death penalty for Asia Bibi.
At a time, Rabia Mehmood, a former Amnesty International investigator, said the Bibi case had become so fragmented because the Pakistani government had failed to take steps to curb “hate and violence campaigns incited by certain groups in the country.”