World

Pakistani boy chops off his own hand in blasphemy case

‚ÄčLAHORE, Pakistan:¬†Late one night, the imam Shabir Ahmad looked up from prayers at his mosque to see a 15-year-old boy approaching with a plate in his outstretched left hand. On it was the boy's freshly severed right hand.

Ahmad did not hesitate. He fled the mosque and left the village, in eastern Punjab province.

Pakistani troops stand guard after the murder of Punjab's governor Salman Taseer, who criticised the country's blasphemy ...
Pakistani troops stand guard after the murder of Punjab's governor Salman Taseer, who criticised the country's blasphemy laws. Photo: AP

Earlier that night, January 10, he had denounced the boy as a blasphemer, an accusation that in Pakistan can get a person killed - even when the accusation is false, as it was in this case.

The boy, Anwar Ali, the devout son of a poor labourer, had been attending an evening prayer gathering at the mosque in the village of Khanqah when Ahmad asked for a show of hands of those who did not love the Prophet Muhammad. Thinking the cleric had asked for those who did love the prophet, Anwar's hand shot up, according to witnesses and the boy's family.

Mumtaz Qadri, who killed Salman Taseer, has had a mosque named after him.
Mumtaz Qadri, who killed Salman Taseer, has had a mosque named after him. Photo: Irfan Ali

He realised his mistake when he saw that his was the only hand up, and he quickly put it down. But by then Ahmad was screaming "Blasphemer!" at him, along with many others in the crowd. "Don't you love your prophet?" they called, as the boy fled in disgrace.

Anwar went home, found a sharp scythe and chopped off his right hand that same night. When he showed it to the cleric, he made clear it was an offering to absolve his perceived sin.

The police quickly caught the mullah and locked him up, but local religious leaders protested, and the authorities backed down and released him. After the international news media began picking up on the story over the weekend, the authorities rearrested Ahmad on Sunday, holding him on terrorism and other charges.

"There is no physical evidence against the cleric of involvement, but he has been charged for inciting and arousing the emotions of people to such a level that the boy did this act," the district police chief, Faisal Rana, said.

The boy's family, however, argues that the cleric did nothing wrong and should not be punished.

"We are lucky that we have this son who loves Prophet Muhammad that much," Muhammad Ghafoor, Anwar's father, said in a telephone interview. "We will be rewarded by God for this in the eternal world."

Anwar, too, declined to make any charge against the mullah. "What I did was for love of the Prophet Muhammad," he said.

Blasphemy is a toxic subject in Pakistan, where a confusing body of laws has enshrined it as a potentially capital offence but also makes it nearly impossible for the accused to defend themselves in court. Even publicly repeating details of the accusation is tantamount to blasphemy in its own right.

Such cases almost never make it to court, however. The merest accusation that blasphemy has occurred has the power to arouse lynching or mob violence.

The governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his own bodyguard in 2011, after Taseer criticised the country's blasphemy laws and defended a Christian woman who had been falsely accused under them. The assassin is a national hero to many devout Pakistanis: His jail cell has become a pilgrimage site, and a mosque was renamed to honour him.

On Monday, Pakistan lifted a three-year-old ban on YouTube, which it had shut down because of accusations of airing anti-Islamic videos. The government announced that Google, which owns YouTube, had agreed to give it the right to block objectionable content. The Pakistani government blocks thousands of web pages it considers offensive.

"We have become a society so intoxicated by negative things in the name of religion that parents feel proud of sending their children to jihad and to die in the name of such activities," said I.A. Rehman, secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "The government needs to do more to educate people and to speak out against extremism."

Anwar Ali did not even go to a hospital after his amputation, but had his right arm's stump bandaged at a village clinic and went home. Family members buried his hand in the village graveyard.

The New York Times