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05 June 2023

Pakistan arrests teen for exam blasphemy


Pakistani police have arrested a teenage boy for allegedly blaspheming in an exam, causing controversy Wednesday and putting the Muslim country's hardline law under a fresh spotlight.

The case, condemned by human rights groups, comes a month after one of Pakistan's most liberal politicians was shot dead by his bodyguard for wanting to reform the law, recently used to sentence to death a Christian mother.

"Sami Ullah wrote a blasphemous comment in an examination, which examiners reported to police," police investigator Qudrat Shah Lodhi said.

He said the privately educated 17-year-old Muslim apologised to the exam board in the financial capital of Karachi, considered the heart of moderate Pakistan, but the apology was not accepted and the matter reported to police.

"Police arrested the boy in Karachi's North Nazimabad area on January 29 and sent him to jail on judicial remand," Lodhi said.

North Nazimabad is a middle class neighbourhood in the sprawling metropolis of 16 million on the Arabian Sea. The boy's father is a civil servant. Police refused to divulge the offending comment in the exam paper, out of fear that they would fall foul of the blasphemy law for repeating it.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Pakistan to drop the charges immediately and ensure the teen's safe release from detention.

"Pakistan has set the standard for intolerance when it comes to misusing blasphemy laws, but sending a schoolboy to jail for something he scribbled on an exam paper is truly appalling", said Bede Sheppard, senior children's rights researcher at HRW.

"It's bad enough that a school official flagged it, but for police and judicial authorities to go ahead and lock up a teenager under these circumstances is mind boggling."

Liberal politicians and human rights activists in Pakistan say the blasphemy law, which carries the maximum sentence of death, is too often used to settle personal scores and encourages Islamist extremism.

Pakistan's powerful religious right praised last month's killer of Punjab governor Salman Taseer and the government has said it will not amend the law. Those sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan have had their sentences overturned or commuted on appeal.