Nearly 10 months after Mashal Khan was lynched to death by a mob in Mardan on the false pretext of blasphemy, a verdict handed down by an Anti-Terrorist Court in Haripur gave a death sentence to one of the accused, life sentences to four others and four-year prison sentences to 25 people. The remaining 26 suspects who had been charged in the case were acquitted due to lack of evidence. It is not for us to say if justice has been done; only Mashal’s family, which has been through so much suffering, has the moral authority to decide if this counts as justice. No amount of guilty verdicts will bring their precious son back but the hope is that strong punishments may allow the Mashals of the future to live without the fear that their ethics and courage could be fatal. The verdict itself gives cause for some cautious optimism but also lots of worries. It is worth noting that Mashal was far from the first person to be the victim of a mob riled up by false allegations of blasphemy but that this is the first time that any members of such mob have been found guilty in a judicial trial. That this happened is entirely due to the unstinting efforts of Mashal’s father. From the very start, including while Mashal was being lynched by the mob, the authorities did nothing to stop it. The investigation was slow and Mashal’s family was under such threats that it had to move. That a guilty verdict was still reached for a large portion of the mob was only possible because Mashal’s family never relented in the pursuit of justice.
It is clear however that even after the ATC verdict the case is far from over. The KP government itself has challenged the acquittals of 26 persons and Mashal’s father, Iqbal Khan, has said that the verdict would be appealed before the Peshawar High Court. There are more disturbing elements in sordid affair. As a nation we must accept that Mashal Khan’s murder and the brutality involving it was forgotten only weeks after the event. The media holds prime responsibility for this. So do political parties, including the PTI, the ANP and the JI whose activists are all thought to have been involved in the incident.
There are other problematic aspects to the verdict. Of the 26 people who were acquitted, CCTV footage shows most present at the lynching. The verdict also does nothing to excuse the performance of the police. A councillor of the PTI who was alleged to be one of the main accused is still in hiding and the police seem no closer to apprehending him. There has not been a full accounting of the role played by members of other political parties, including the ANP, and the university administration in Mashal’s lynching and murder. Neither has any reform been introduced either at the provincial level or even at educational institutions to prevent a recurrence of such a horrific crime. It is also galling that those law-enforcement officials who were present when Mashal was killed and did nothing have not been punished.
But perhaps what was scariest was the rapturous reception given to the 26 men who were freed. As they returned to Mardan, members of the JUI-F and JI cheered them as heroes. One of the accused has reportedly even said that he would strictly punish anyone who committed blasphemy in the future. In the end, the key persons involved in plotting the murder of Mashal remain free and those let off by the court are being treated as heroes despite the brutality that they participated in. There can be no greater indictment of the country today than the fact that even exhaustive investigations showing Mashal never committed blasphemy have not been sufficient to remove the taint such vile and irresponsible allegations place on a person, and that even a trial was not enough to get members of the mob to repent for their role in this grave crime against humanity.