CHITRAL, Pakistan: A mob attacked a man accused of blasphemy during Friday prayers in a northern Pakistani town and injured six police officers after they intervened to rescue him, police said.
It was the third blasphemy-related incident in Pakistan this month, after a student was beaten to death by a lynch mob and a faith healer was shot dead.
Security officials in Chitral fired tear gas and live rounds on the mob, injuring eight protesters, after they attacked the local police headquarters and demanded that alleged blasphemer Rashid Ahmed be made available for mob justice.
“We told them that Ahmed will be examined medically and if he was found mentally fit then he will be tried under the blasphemy law, but the mob was not satisfied,” said local police chief Akbar Ali Shah.
Shah said he had asked for army assistance to help control the crowds, but a Reuters correspondent at the scene said soldiers had yet to arrive.
Blasphemy is a highly sensitive topic in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where insulting the Prophet Muhammad is a capital crime for which dozens are sitting on death row. There have been at least 67 murders over unproven allegations since 1990, according to figures from a research center and independent records kept by Reuters.
Witnesses say that Ahmed entered the local mosque asking to make an important announcement, then declared himself a messiah and said that he would lead his followers to paradise.
An angry congregation then turned violent and attacked Ahmed, who Shah said appeared to be suffering from mental illness. He suffered a beating, but police said his injuries were not life-threatening.
Pakistan’s government has been vocal on the issue of blasphemy, with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif issuing an order last month for the removal of blasphemous content online and saying anyone who posted it should face “strict punishment under the law.”
Police are investigating over 20 students and some faculty members in connection with the killing of Mashal Khan, the student who was beaten to death on April 13 in an attack that shocked the country.
Since then, parliament has discussed adding safeguards to the blasphemy laws, a move seen as groundbreaking in Pakistan where political leaders have been assassinated for even discussing changes.
In 2011, Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by his bodyguard after calling for reforms. Taseer’s killer, executed last year, has been hailed by religious hard-liners as a martyr to Islam and a shrine has been erected at his grave.