A university lecturer has been sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan a ruling branded a “gross miscarriage of justice” by human rights groups.
Junaid Hafeez, 33, has spent years in solitary confinement after being arrested in the Punjab city of Multan in 2013 and accused of posting blasphemous Facebook comments about Islam’s prophet Mohammed.
Insulting the prophet carries a mandatory death penalty in Pakistan, where the population is about 95 per cent Muslim.
Mr Hafeez’s trial was held under tight security inside the jail where he is imprisoned after threats to his family and lawyer.
He has spent the majority of the last six years awaiting trial in solitary confinement over fears he would otherwise be killed, according to local media.
A court order stated he “shall be hanged by neck till his death subject to its confirmation by the honourable high court” following his sentencing on Saturday.
Rabia Mehmood, a South Asia researcher for Amnesty International, said the ruling was a “vile and gross miscarriage of justice”.
Shahbaz Gormani, Mr Hafeez’s defence lawyer, said his client was wrongly convicted and that they would appeal against the ruling in a higher court.
Mr Hafeez was arrested after students at a university in Multan, where he was a visiting lecturer, accused him of blasphemy.
His lawyers say he was framed by students from an extremist Islamist party for his liberal and secular views and this month a US religious freedom commission placed Mr Hafeez on its list of global victims.
Defence lawyer Asad Jamal said: “There can’t be a fair trial in blasphemy cases in Pakistan.
“We have a spineless system. No one can stand up to a blasphemy charge.”
Prosecutor Athar Bukhari said Mr Hafeez had spent three years in the US under a special program for Pakistani educators.
The prosecutor said investigators retrieved anti-religions material from Mr Hafeez’s laptop after his attest.
The academic, who quit his studies at Pakistan’s top medical college to pursue a passion for art and literature, secured a Fulbright scholarship and attended Jackson State University in Mississippi, US, where he specialised in American literature, photography and theatre.
Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law carries an automatic death penalty for anyone accused of insulting God, Islam or other religious figures.
While authorities have yet to carry out a death sentence for blasphemy, even the mere accusation can cause riots.
Domestic and international human rights groups say blasphemy allegations have often been used to intimidate religious minorities and to settle personal scores.
A Punjab governor was killed by his own guard in 2011 after he defended a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was accused of blasphemy.
She was acquitted in January after spending eight years on death row in a case that drew international media attention.
Mr Hafeez was also fined half a million Pakistani rupees (£2,500) on Saturday.
Additional reporting by agencies.