December 27, 2019 / 12:54 PM / a month ago

U.N. experts urge Pakistan to clear scholar of blasphemy, lift death sentence

GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations human rights experts called on Pakistan’s high court on Friday to clear liberal academic Junaid Hafeez of blasphemy charges and overturn his death sentence.

In a joint statement, they described Hafeez’s condemnation by a lower court last week as a “travesty of justice” and said senior judges should acquit the former university lecturer on appeal.

“We urge Pakistan’s superior courts to promptly hear his appeal, overturn the death sentence and acquit him,” said the independent experts who include U.N. investigators on freedom of religion, unlawful killings and arbitrary detention.

In 2013 students at the university where Hafeez taught accused him of making blasphemous Facebook posts. Insulting Islam’s Prophet Mohammad carries a mandatory death penalty in Pakistan, which is about 95% Muslim.

His lawyers say he was framed by students from a militant Islamist party because of his liberal and secular views. This month a U.S. religious freedom commission placed Hafeez on its list of global victims.

Hafeez’s family and lawyers released a statement saying the trial had been marked by a “wave of fear” and intimidation after Hafeez’s initial defence lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was shot and killed in 2014 after agreeing to take on the case. No one has been charged with that murder.

The family and lawyers said they would file an appeal against the verdict in the high court.

International law permits the death penalty only in exceptional circumstances, and requires incontrovertible evidence of intentional murder, the U.N. experts said.

“The death sentence imposed on Mr. Hafeez has no basis in either law or evidence, and therefore contravenes international law. Carrying out the sentence would amount to an arbitrary killing,” they said.

“We are seriously concerned that blasphemy charges are still being brought against people legitimately exercising their rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and expression,” they added.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Heavens

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