Ambulance workers load the body of Mashal Khan into an ambulance after a mob beat him to death in Mardan, Pakistan. Photo: Reuters

The gruesome vigilante murder of Mashal Khan, 26, by his fellow students last Thursday – after he was accused of committing blasphemy – has once again brought into sharp focus the failure of Pakistan as a state.

Khan was a student of journalism at Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, 60 kilometers east of Peshawar. The incident occurred hours after a dormitory debate, following which allegations of blasphemy spread around the campus, prompting university officials to announce that three students, including Khan, were being investigated for “blasphemous activities”.

Blasphemy is taken seriously in Pakistan. The former military dictator, Gen Zia Ul Haq, introduced amendments prescribing life imprisonment or the death penalty for those who insult the Prophet Muhammad. Since 1992, the latter punishment has been the only option. At least 65 people have been murdered in Pakistan over blasphemy allegations since 1990 and today dozens languish in the country’s jails awaiting execution. In 2011, Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, was gunned down by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, when he suggested amendments be made to blasphemy ordinance. Qadri was hanged last year. His funeral was attended by tens of thousands of people and his grave has become a shrine.

A classmate and close friend of Khan told the Asia Times on Sunday that although the latter was not rigid in his belief, he never committed blasphemy. “He was a sweet man who would not fall on the face value of virtues but will follow and emulate them,” he added.

In Khan’s case, the rule of law could not exercise its writ. A mob dragged him out of his room and stripped him before shooting him at point blank range. His body was then surrounded and savagely beaten with clubs and wooden planks, with the perpetrators shouting slogans against blasphemers. A graphic and disturbing video of the incident can be viewed here:

Grasping the gravity of the situation, Pakistan’s Chief Justice, Saqib Nisar, directed Inspector General police Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to present a report within 36 hours. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government has taken unprecedented steps to purge social media of “blasphemous content,” said he was “shocked and saddened by the senseless display of mob justice that resulted in the murder of a young student, Mashal Khan, at Wali Khan University.”

A message released to the press on behalf of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has demanded that those responsible for the murder be brought to justice. “The state’s abject failure to protect Mashal Khan’s right to life has created great panic and horror among students and academia,” it said. “Unless all those who played any part in Mashal’s brutal murder are brought to justice, such barbarity will only spread.”

The difference between my sins and your sins is that when I sin I know I’m sinning while you have actually fallen prey to your own fabricated illusions

Sadly, some clerics at Khan’s village mosque in Sawabi, some 60 kilometers south of Mardan, created a disturbance at his funeral and refused to lead prayers. They even delivered speeches branding him a heretic and warning villagers not to attend the funeral. Local police have launched an investigation against them for hatemongering.

Court officials told the Asia Times that eight university students had been charged with murder and terrorism on Saturday. Under clauses 427, 297, 302 and 148 of the Pakistan Penal Code and section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act, police registered two separate cases against 20 suspects. The Deputy Inspector General of Mardan, Alam Shinwari, informed a reporter for The News that no evidence had been found that proved Khan had said anything controversial about religion or had committed blasphemy.

On his Facebook profile he called himself ‘The Humanist’, and comes across as an enlightened, moderate and judicious person who had no time for hypocrisy. He would not carry fire in one hand and water in the other, as the saying goes.

In one message, written on April 3 – just 10 days before his murder – he wrote: “The difference between my darkness and your darkness is that I can look at my own badness in the face and accept its existence while you are busy covering your mirror with a white linen sheet. The difference between my sins and your sins is that when I sin I know I’m sinning while you have actually fallen prey to your own fabricated illusions. I am a siren, a mermaid; I know that I am beautiful while basking on the ocean’s waves and I know that I can eat flesh and bones at the bottom of the sea. You are a white witch, a wizard; your spells are manipulations and your cauldron from hell yet you wrap yourself in white and wear a silver wig.”

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