'Holy warrior' selfies: Pakistan teen feted for killing US blasphemy suspect

Pakistani lawyers clamour to represent 15-year-old Faisal Khan over shooting of Tahir Naseem during court hearing

People chant slogans in favour of a man who, according to the Pakistani police, is suspected of killing U.S. national Tahir Ahmed Naseem during a proceeding at a judicial complex, in a protest rally demanding his release, in Peshawar, Pakistan August 5, 2020. Picture taken August 5, 2020. REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz
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Faisal Khan, a 15-year-old Pakistani, beamed for selfies with lawyers and police. Thousands hailed him in the streets as a holy warrior.

His claim to adulation? Allegedly gunning down in open court an American accused of blasphemy, a capital crime in Muslim-majority Pakistan.

He is charged with murder, which also carries a death sentence. But while lawyers line up to defend him, the lawyer for Tahir Naseem, the US citizen, has gone into hiding.

The teenager, according to officials and witnesses, got through three security checkpoints on his way into a courtroom in the north-western Pakistani city of Peshawar on July 29, pulled out a pistol and fired shots into Naseem, 57, at a bail hearing.

Naseem died at the scene; onlookers were spattered with his blood.

His death turned a spotlight on Pakistan's blasphemy laws and drew criticism from abroad. The US and human rights groups decried the killing and urged changes to Pakistan's blasphemy statutes, among the harshest in the world.

Closer to home, the youth is a hero.

"It's one of those cases where everyone wants to be his lawyer," said Inamullah Yusufzai, who represented Faisal at his first court hearing last week. Mr Yusufzai said lawyers from across Pakistan had called to defend him for no fee, to support what they regard as the justified killing of a heretic.

The case has not reached the stage for Faisal to enter a plea.

Thousands rallied, calling for his release. Delegations of well-wishers – lawyers, clerics, local politicians – have visited the Khan family home in Peshawar to congratulate them. He has received messages of support from the Pakistani Taliban.

A selfie shot by Elite Force police guards in a van escorting the teenager to court after his arrest was shared widely on social media. Wearing all white, Faisal grinned broadly. Several officers smile, one gives a thumbs-up.

A senior police official, who said the force had looked the photo, said it was authentic.

Another selfie shows a crowd, some black-clad lawyers, escorting a beaming Faisal into court.

The US State Department, in an unusually blunt statement, said Naseem "had been lured to Pakistan from his home in Illinois by individuals who then used Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to entrap him".

It called on Pakistan to reform its blasphemy laws and prosecute Naseem's killing.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said a special team was investigating the case and it "will be dealt with in accordance with the law".

But prosecuting Faisal and any potential accomplices will be an immense challenge.

In blasphemy cases in Pakistan, "an accusation becomes a death sentence, whether carried out by the state or by mobs or vigilantes," Omar Waraich, head of South Asia for Amnesty International, said.

The rights group said in a 2016 report that "Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often used against religious minorities and others who are the target of false accusations, while emboldening vigilantes prepared to threaten or kill the accused."

In 2011, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan's largest province, was killed by his police guard for offering support to a Christian woman facing blasphemy charges. His killer was tried and sentenced to death, but not before thousands rallied for his release and rioted after he was executed.

Naseem was born in a village outside Peshawar but had long lived in the US, according to clerics and villagers who knew him.

He often visited his village, where he expressed views that "upset locals", said Wajid Ali, a cleric who runs a seminary there.

Naseem's statements landed him in prison several times, said Mr Ali and another local who knew him. In those cases, they said, the intervention of locals, who believed Naseem was mentally unstable, got him released.

"On the internet, he kept saying things like, 'I'm a messiah, or a prophet,' and that caused great trouble in our village," Mr Ali said.

Naseem set up a website proclaiming himself a messiah, with a link for people to pledge allegiance to him. On LinkedIn, he described himself as "Jesus's second coming, reviver, prophet".

His distance from Pakistan kept him safe, even as he reached out to its Islamic seminary students to preach his messianic call.

In 2018, one of those students convinced Naseem to travel to Pakistan, where they met at a Peshawar shopping mall, according to court documents seen by Reuters.

"He came thinking this student will believe him and others will join his call," Mr Ali said. "But the student had already told the police. They were standing nearby in plainclothes and they arrested him."

Naseem was charged with denigrating the Quran and the Prophet Mohammed. Two years later, awaiting his bail hearing surrounded by police and lawyers, he was shot dead.