HARIPUR - An anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Haripur district Wednesday awarded death sentence to one person and life imprisonment to five others for lynching a student falsely accused of blasphemy, a crime which sent shockwaves throughout the country.

The court headed by Justice Fazle Subhan also awarded four-year imprisonment to 25 more accused and exonerated 26 others from the charges. The decision was announced in Central Prison of Haripur amid tight security.

The court ruled that there was no concrete evidence against exonerated persons as they were found only standing in the mob or making videos and therefore were acquitted of charges.

The court sentenced Imran Sultan Muhammad to death over his role in shooting Mashal Khan during the lynching, a crime he confessed to earlier.

"One of the accused has been awarded a death sentence, (five) were given life imprisonment while 26 have been acquitted," Saad Abbasi, a defence lawyer, told AFP at the prison where the verdict was announced. An additional 25 were given lesser sentences, he added, saying he planned to file an appeal against the decision.

Mashal Khan, 23, a young student of mass communication department of Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, was attacked and murdered by a mob of students in the varsity campus on April 13, 2017 over charges of blasphemy. Khan was stripped, beaten and shot by a gang made up mostly of students before being thrown from the second floor of his dormitory.

However, joint investigation team constituted by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government later cleared Mashal Khan of blasphemy charges.

The anti-terrorism court reserved its verdict in the case on January 27. During the course of hearing, a total of 57 accused were presented by the prosecution.

It merits mention here that in the Mashal Khan murder case, a total of 61 persons were charged, out of which 58 were detained. Out of 58 arrested, 57 were indicted under the charge while one was arrested in January 2018.

In all 57 people were put on trial in connection with the murder, including fellow student Imran Sultan, who knew the victim well and pleaded guilty to shooting him.

A 58th man was arrested last month and is facing separate proceedings.

The accused were students, teachers and some officials of the Abdul Wali Khan University.

The accused who has been awarded death sentence is identified as Imran Sultan Muhammad who fired at Mashal Khan ensuing in his death.

Those who were awarded life imprisonment are Fazal-e-Raziq, Mujeebullah, Ashfaq Khan, Mubashar Bashir and Bilal Baksh. They were also fined Rs100,000 each.

Around 100 relatives of the accused students waited outside the prison walls as news of the verdict trickled out.

"A day will come that the judge will answer the God. The verdict he has announced is unjust," said Waheedullah, whose son was given a four-year sentence.

Strict security arrangements were made at the time of announcement of judgment and army personnel were also deployed around the central prison to pre-empt any untoward happening.

Media men were not allowed to enter into the jail premises due to security concerns as a result newsmen faced difficulties in getting details of the judgment.

The brutality of the attack, which was recorded on mobile phone cameras and posted online, stunned the public and led to widespread condemnation - including from prominent religious clerics. Protests erupted in several cities.

Students who took part were rounded up after being identified through CCTV footage from the university and video clips.

An official report released months later concluded Mashal Khan was falsely accused, saying the murder was instigated by members of a secular student group who felt threatened by Khan's growing prominence as a critic of rising fees and of alleged corruption at the university.

The 23-year-old was studying mass communications at Abdul Wali Khan University. He described himself as a humanist, and had plastered his room with posters of his political heroes - like Che Guevara and Karl Marx - and written slogans celebrating free speech on the walls.

Reports around the time of his death said he had often been accused of holding "anti-Islamic" views and that the day before he died, he had been engaged in a heated debate about religion.

He was also known for his criticism of the university's leadership.

On 13 April, 2017 rumours spread that Khan had posted blasphemous material online, a crime punishable by death in the country. Hundreds of students and some university staff members marched through the campus searching for him.

They broke into his room and dragged him out. Widely circulated mobile phone footage showed him being beaten, stamped on and shot. The crowd continued to attack his body after his death.

During their investigation, police determined there was no evidence Khan had committed blasphemy. His killing was ruled to have been premeditated murder.

Some of the 50 people who gave testimonies to the court said he had angered the university administration by criticising their management in the weeks before his death.

There was a huge outpouring of solidarity and grief. Protests were held demanding justice for Khan and there has been a debate about excessive use of blasphemy allegations to settle personal grievances.

Many people in Khan's home village stayed away from his funeral, fearing being attacked by hardliners.

Although people have received the death penalty for blasphemy, the state has not yet executed anyone for the crime.



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