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American Citizen, On Trial For Blasphemy, Killed In Pakistani Court

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

On July 29, an American, Tahir Naseem, was shot and killed inside a Pakistani courtroom while on trial for alleged blasphemy. In Pakistan, blasphemy against Islam carries a punishment as severe as death. But the law is widely criticized by human rights groups. They say it's often used to target minority faiths and the falsely accused in the majority Sunni Muslim country and that it encourages vigilantism against the accused, like what happened to Naseem.

Naseem was detained upon arrival in Pakistan after traveling there in 2018. He was a former member of the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim community, which has been declared heretical under the Pakistani constitution. The U.S. State Department denounced the killing, issuing a statement calling it shameful. It added that Naseem was, quote, "lured to Pakistan from his home in Illinois by individuals who then used Pakistan's blasphemy laws to entrap him," unquote.

It has urged the Pakistani government to adopt immediate reforms to help prevent a similar tragedy in the future. But Tahir Naseem's daughter, Mashal Naseem, believes more needs to be done and done urgently. She started a petition to try and bring more attention to her father's killing, calling on the U.N. and the State Department to try and put an end to these laws. And Mashal Naseem joins us now.

Thank you for being with us during such a difficult time.

MASHAL NASEEM: Thank you for having me.

FADEL: You know, first off all, I'm just so sorry for the loss of your father, and I know you must be going through so much right now. How are you and your family doing?

NASEEM: Honestly, we're taking it a day at a time. It's affected us beyond belief. I don't know if we'll ever be the same. It's just - losing a parent, like, by itself is a tragedy, but losing a parent to murder is something else.

FADEL: Can you tell me about your dad? How long had it been since you've last seen him?

NASEEM: I was in high school when he got locked up. And it was, like, the worst thing I ever went through, especially when I was in my senior year. I was looking forward to him seeing me graduate, and I always wanted to make him proud. That's the type of dad he was. He made me want to make him proud. He was just insanely lovable and, like, had the biggest heart.

FADEL: And how is your mother doing, and your siblings? I know you have an 11-year-old brother and a 22-year-old sister.

NASEEM: Yeah. They are a complete mess. I don't know how else to explain it. My mom, she's just - that was her best friend, and she lost him.

FADEL: So you started this change.org petition, and you started it less than a week ago, and you've already gotten 20,000 signatures.

NASEEM: Yeah. I started about three days ago, I would say. Yeah.

FADEL: And tell me what you want with this petition. What are you calling for? What do you want it to accomplish?

NASEEM: The first thing I want is for the killer to be tried to the maximum punishment. Obviously, I don't want him to get killed or, like, hanged because that's polarizing for what I'm standing for. But I do want him to serve life in prison without parole. And if that's not possible, I do want him to get extradited here so he can get tried here because my dad was an American. He was an American citizen.

And I've been, like, researching all over to see how someone can get extradited if they kill a U.S. citizen. And there is some information about how basically if the government is corrupt there, if there's, like, something going on where he's not going to get a fair trial, he could get extradited here. And that makes sense because all over Twitter and social media, I've been seeing, like, the police take selfies with him, the killer. And these are the same police that are supposed to be protecting the citizens over there, but they're making a mockery out of my dad's murder.

And not just that - the second thing I want is reform - justice reform. And I want these blasphemy laws abolished because they're completely inhumane. They persecute minorities there and target them. And he didn't even get a fair trial to begin with. Before the law even gave him, you know, a sentence, someone decided to take it into their own hands, which is completely absurd.

FADEL: And so you want these laws to be changed.

NASEEM: I want the laws to completely be eradicated. They're completely inhumane to begin with. Blasphemy laws are imaginary in itself. Like, it's subjective. You can't tell someone what is blasphemy and what is not.

FADEL: With your father's case, what was he accused of?

NASEEM: He was accused of, like, saying wrongful things about God, about the prophet in Islam. And none of it was, you know, proven to be true. You know, he was supposed to win, actually. Even the lawyers were telling us, like, in the upcoming days, he was actually winning the case.

NASEEM: I know in the petition, you've mentioned some specific organizations. You mentioned the United Nations. You mentioned the U.S. State Department. What do you want from them when it comes to bringing the changes that you mapped out?

NASEEM: Well, I want them to just bring awareness to the injustices that happen because injustices anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. So if this is happening, and people aren't saying anything, they're choosing the side of the oppressor. They're choosing to remain silent because they think it's right. But it's not right. And things need to change before someone else dies, before someone else gets murdered and has to go through the same pain that I have to go through at such a young age.

FADEL: I understand you and your family have also gotten some threats from extremist groups. Could you tell us about what's been happening to you?

FADEL: Yeah. So basically, I've posted about the petition on pretty much all social media platforms. And I read the comments, and some of them are just absurd. They're telling me that if I don't take down this petition, the same thing that happened with my dad is going to happen to me. And they're just threatening me and telling me that I need to just stay quiet and that justice has already been served to my father.

Like, some hateful comments from grown people - do they even realize that that was my father? They don't even see him as a person. They see him as a thing.

FADEL: But it hasn't stopped you.

NASEEM: It has not stopped me. I might be five-two, a hundred pounds, but I will not surrender to grown men in Pakistan calling me names, telling me to take down this petition. I'm not going to stop. Like, if they know anything, then they should know how much perseverance I have, to be honest.

FADEL: That's Mashal Naseem. Her father, Tahir Naseem, was killed in a Pakistani courtroom in July.

Mashal Naseem, thank you so much again for talking with us.

NASEEM: Thank you so much for having me.

FADEL: And we should mention that we reached out to the State Department for their response to the demands raised in Mashal Naseem's petition. They wrote, in part, quote, "we grieve with the family of Mr. Naseem. We at the senior levels of our government urge Pakistan to immediately reform its often-abused blasphemy laws and its court system, which allow such abuses to occur and to ensure that the suspect is prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

(SOUNDBITE OF JULES OLSON'S "STAY LIKE THIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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